Fantasy Chick Lit: Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

Depending on what kind of a reader you are, you may enjoy being challenged by every new book or you may prefer comfort reads, books where you essentially know what you’re going to get. Or you’re a mix of both or something in between. I lean more towards new and challenging reads but, boy, do I love a nice comfort read when I’m stressed. This book was not good literature in any way, it wasn’t good fantasy either, but it told a fun story that was easy to follow, with exciting scenes, a nice romance, and a fast moving plot. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right kind of book.

poison study1POISON STUDY
by Maria V. Snyder

Published: Mira Books, 2005
eBook: 431 pages
Series: Poison Study #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.

About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace– and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…

Yelena is taken from the dungeon where she has spent the last year to finally be executed for the murder she’s committed. But destiny offers her another chance to live, at least for a while. The Commander’s former food taster has died recently and a replacement is needed. The Rules (this mysterious document/code of conduct comes up many times, don’t expect it to be explained or make sense or anything, just roll with it) state that the next in line for the gallows should be offered the job. And, as she is kind of attached to life, Yelena accepts. After a trial run where her new superior – and the commander’s confidant – Valek tests her ability to even discover whether food is poisoned, Yelena turns out to be perfect for the job. And thus starts her career as food taster and this story kicks off.

Let me say, before I get into anything else, that I had a lot of fun reading this and I would actually recommend it. But I’d recommend it with caveats, or for when you’re in the same mood I was in, or when you’re just into this kind of book. Because if you’re a reader of SFF for the same reasons I am – namely discovering the world through a science-fictional lens, reading about wild ideas, wondrous magic, epic battles, fantastical cultures, futuristic visions, … – then this is not the right book.
But if you want a quick, fun adventure where magic appears when convenient, where things are simple and straight forward, and where you know more or less what’s going to happen, then pick this up. The best analogy I can make is a rom com. They’re all essentially the same but still different enough to have a favorite and to keep you entertained. So, now that I’ve hopefully got across that I had fun reading this, my critical brain nonetheless needs to tell you why it just isn’t a good book.

Everything is super simplistic and shallow.
Seriously, pick your poison (haha), it has no depth. The characters are mostly blank with one or two personality traits and no agency at all. They exist merely to further Yelena’s story, they don’t have lives or hopes or dreams outside of being a sidekick to Yelena.
Yelena is, naturally, perfect. She is the kind of heroine I loathe! She’s good at everything, either right from the start or after very little training. Her friends teach her self-defense and fighting with a staff and she masters this art after only a few weeks because… well, the plot demands that she’s really good at fighting at that point. The fact that her tastebuds are also amazing and can immediately (!) detect the slightest differences in certain foods is far from believable, especially in someone who has spent the last months in a dungeon, being fed tasteless slop. But my motto while reading this was: just roll with it!

The world buliding is just as weak and sloppy. There used to be a king, but he was overthrown by the Commander and now the kingdom is divided into Military Districts, led by Generals. They abide by super strict rules (that Code thingy I mentioned above) that allow no lenience whatsoever. Killed someone in self-defense? You gotta die. Killed someone to save a baby’s life? Too bad, you’re still going to be hanged. None of this is ever explained, there’s not even an attempt at creating a consistent believable world here. Rules, cultural idiosynchrasies, celebrations, etc. come up when the plot demands it and disappear as easily. That’s why this is, objectively, not a good book. But who cares?
There’s also magic in this universe and – can you guess it – our heroine secretly has magical powers. This isn’t a spoiler as anyone will guess after the third chapter when she accidentally uses magic. Now I am perfectly happy with the lack of a magic system, because magic should be wild and uncontrollable, otherwise it would just be science that we don’t understand (yet). But Snyder does put some rules on her magic, although they, like everything else in this book, feel like she came up with them spontaneously and they don’t have any impact whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything. New rules appear as soon as it’s convenient, without ever having been mentioned before.
That’s what makes this book feel so much like an early draft. Ideas pop up whenever they probably popped up in the author’s head. Now to make a book better, you should try and foreshadow a little or at least leave tiny hints or mentions of things that will be important to the plot later. Don’t let your readers believe they are in a world with only rule X and then, in the last quarter of the book sudeenly pretend that rule Y has always existed.

As for the plot, I’m not really sure what the point is and why the book is called Poison Study, but it was exciting enough. Yelena’s new chance to live gets the whole thing rolling, but we soon learn that she has a Dark Past (TM) which is also the reason she’s killed a man and was in the dungeons in the first place. Nothing about her past was particularly surprising, except for the one time where she explicitly contradicts herself – saying in an early chapter that a certain thing never happened and then much later in the book explaining how that very thing not just happened but was the catalyst for the murder… That’s just super lazy writing/editing!
But whatever, her new job is to taste the Commander’s food, try and not find her superior/assassin/poison master Valek so damn attractive, make friends with a few people, and discover a whole conspiracy. There are training montages, bullies to fight, spies to discover, friendship, betrayal, a fire festival, acrobatics, surprisingly little poison tasting, sneaking around the castle, and some battles.

On the one hand, everything in this book is just too easy and it felt like the author didn’t know how to make certain things feel important. Yelena’s past, for example, follows her everywhere. She clearly has some trauma (as is only understandable) but only about her past. She strangely mourns a stranger’s death but never so much as mentions the death of a character who was a friend. Because the characters are all so shallow, I guess the author forgot to have her heroine be sad about one of them passing. There is also this whole enmity going on between Yelena and another character that is simply dropped somwhere around the middle of the book. Said character isn’t even mentioned after that although they came across as rather important at first. It’s all very haphazard and serves one purpose only: to tell the story of an author-insert protagonist who is beyond perfect and finally realizes just how amazing she really is. She finds an attractive man who (of course) is all aflame for her, she makes friends who would immediately die for her, and she saves the country just by being the only (!) person clever enough to figure out things that will be clear to the reader from chapter 3 onwards.

So to reiterate: Despite this book actually being a literary trainwreck, I had fun reading it! Who cares that the language changes from old-timey to strangely modern within the same sentence? Who cares how simple and ridiculous everything is. This is a feel-good book where you know everything will end well, things will turn out alright for the protagonists and the only characters who find a bad end you never really cared for in the first place because they were just cardboard cutouts. Sitting down for a few hours having mindless fun can be exactly right, especially during stressful times. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes, we need this pure escapism. Maria Snyder gave me that with this book, and although I have no desire whatsoever to find out how Yelena’s story continues, I will keep this series in the back of my mind for a time when I’m stressed out and don’t want to think but just want to go on a silly adventure with a perfect heroine.

MY RATING: 4 – Pretty bad!

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

A Tropey Sci-Fi Romance: Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars

I picked this up because I’ve seen it on a few recommendations lists and I haven’t read that many 2020 YA books yet. Plus, the premise sounded too good to pass up. A girl risking her life for books and an alien who secretly loves human music? How could I resist?

THE SOUND OF STARS
by Alechia Dow

Published: Inkyard Press, 2020
eBook: 432 pages
audiobook: 12 hours 23 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. 

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.

Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.


Oh well, might as well get my first bad book of the year out of the way right now. The Sound of Stars started out quite well. Janelle – Ellie – lives in an Ilori-controlled building where she and her family and friends are locked up and live under tough restrictions. They must not show emotions, all art is banned, and they are kept alive merely to be vaccinated with a strange vaccine as soon as it’s finished. Ellie’s father got an early test version of the vaccine which has left him like a shell of his former self. Her mother, in the meantime, deals with this situation by drinking (which is of course also illegal). 17-year-old Ellie keeps a secret library and loans out books to her patrons. If she is caught, she’ll probably be executed immediately…

M0Rr1s is an Ilori labmade commander who is working on perfecting the mysterious vaccine in order to be used on all humans. But he also has a secret: He loves human music and secretly listens to it. His fellow Ilori would decidedly not approve. When he finds out about Ellie’s library, he confronts her. Not to get her executed but to make her help him get his hands on more music! Naturally, a romance evolves…

In the reviews I’ve read, M0Rr1s is often described as a lovable softie and that’s not wrong. To me, he often felt more like a robot than an alien, to be honest. He’s a fish out of water, unknowing in the ways of humans or how to interact with them. His innocent and curious nature made him easy to like, yes, but I had a very hard time picturing him with a human body.
Which leads to my next issue. The aliens aren’t really all that alien. It’s a widespread problem in science fiction that alien species are just humanoids with maybe an extra limb or different facial features. In this case, the Ilori have a computer panel on their face that lets them communicate via their alien internet. To be more specific, there are two types of Ilori. The true ones (who are vaguely human-shaped blobs of some kind?) and the labmade ones like Morris who look almost completely human, with skin and blood all the usual body parts.
I get that it’s easier to write a romance between two human-shaped characters than it would be between two properly different species. But I was so hoping for the more complicated version of this Romeo and Juliet tale. Where are the books where people and aliens fall in love and the alien doesn’t happen too look like a cute, attractive human?

But my biggest problem with the Ilori was that are against emotions. That’s not a new idea in science fiction at all but I found it weird that a species that clearly feels emotions is so opposed to them. Why? And how would that even work? Feelings are a catalyst for so many things. Fear, anger, love, jealousy, greed – those keep a story going and the Ilori feel them as much as humans do. Pretending not to doesn’t change the fact that emotions inform their actions. So I just don’t see the point other than creating some bogus conflict that lets Ilori execute anyone who actually shows how angry they are instead of putting on a blank face while being angry…

This book is often praised for its inclusivity and I did like some but not all of it. Janelle is a young, fat Black girl who she suffers from anxiety attacks. None of those things felt in any way forced or used for a specific effect. They are just part of who Ellie is. When things get dangerous, and they do that a lot, her anxiety flares up and she uses her method of counting down from five for dealing with it. I don’t know how realistic that method is, but it certainly felt believable and made Ellie into more of a badass in my eyes. After all, who would run a forbidden library when being found out could mean execution? For someone with anxiety to take that risk takes even more courage.
She’s also demi-ace and explains to Morris what that means. In her words (paraphrased), it takes a long time for her to get to know and trust someone and then, maybe, she’ll develop romantic feelings for them. Gender doesn’t matter, but time does. This becomes important later and it’s also the part I didn’t like because… well, it stands in stark contrast to what actually happens in the book.

The bulk of the novel is about Ellie and Morris on a road trip to California (I had so hoped for a road trip in space, but we can’t always get what we want (song title reference totally intended)). They meet both people and aliens on the way, get into dangerous situations, and of course fall in love with each other in no time at all.
That would have been fine, honestly, if Ellie didn’t specifically make fun of this very trope and if it didn’t contradict who she says she is as a person! She snobbishly looks down on book heroines who fall in love after only one day while DOING THE VERY SAME THING HERSELF! What am I supposed to think about that? Look, I know it’s a stupid trope but I don’t mind it if I’m watching or reading a romance. If it makes for a good story, the trope can be forgiven. But using a trope and making fun of it at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when it happens to a demi-ace girl who literally just explained how long it takes her to develop feelings!

As much as I liked Ellie at first, she does a complete 180 around the middle of the book and suddenly turns stupid. Morris and her get caught by some Ilori so Morris makes up a story on the spot about her being his prisoner – you know, to keep them both alive. While that is obviously a cover story, Ellie takes his suddenly changed demeanour at face value and starts instantly hating him. The girl who was so clever in the beginning and, by the way, reads books like others breathe air so who must have come across this trope before, can’t figure out that Morris isn’t really suddenly evil but just trying to save her ass from being executed or vaccinated? I just don’t understand that story decision. The plot would have worked just as well if Ellie had played along (and made her look much better), but I guess there had to be some “relationship conflict” that would lead to a fight, so the love birds could come back together dramatically.

Speaking of the relationship. This book is HEAVY on the romance and spends most of its middle part repeating the same pattern over and over. Morris and Ellie are on their road trip, they meet humans and/or Ilori, get in trouble, get out of trouble, sit in the car and talk, and the same thing happens again and again with slight variations. Not only does that get boring pretty quickly, but I also didn’t find their relationship development in the least interesting or believable. As I mentioned, Ellie falls in love way too quickly but there’s also never any real chemistry between the two. Their shared love for books and music only goes so far that she drops book titles and he talks about the artists he likes, and they agree on them being great.
Actually, the worst part of their shared love for the arts is how Ellie SUMS UP some of the best books out there for Morris. What self-respecting book lover would sum up Jane Eyre in their own world?! Don’t you want Morris to experience the pure beauty of that story for himself? And sure, you’re in a tight spot now but it’s all super hopeful and you’re saving the world so WHY SPOIL THE BOOK FOR HIM?

Oh and about those road trip stops. They always work by the same pattern but some of them are definitely more stupid then others. One time, Morris and Ellie are imprisoned (separately) and a human toddler comes along and sings “If you’re happy and you know it” with Morris. The mother, when she finds them, is naturally shocked. After all, her son is standing very close to one of the aliens who are suppressing her entire planet and are killing people left and right. However, because Morris and that kid had a nice little song together, the very same mother then decides to help Morris. I mean, just imagine for one second that Morris wasn’t a good guy but a different Ilori who actually means humans harm. What mother would be stupid enough to trust a complete stranger just because he sang a children’s song with her son?
But all the dangerous situations are like that. Ellie and Morris aren’t completely useless but they always end up being saved by a third party.

Oh and let’s not even start about that deus ex machina ending. It was sooooo ridiculous. The last third of the book is mostly “I love you more” “No, I love you more” “You are the highlight of my day” “I never want to be parted from you” but in between cheesy and way over the top declarations of undying love, the author must have remembered that novels also need a plot. In order to resolve hers, she throws in something that solves all the problems easily and at no cost to the protagonists. And for Ellie and Morris’ further adventures (please don’t write a sequel), Ellie’s parents stay conveniently out of the way and her best friend is suddenly not that important anymore. Because Morris is the center of her universe and that’s really all this book is about.

Audiobook specific thoughts:
It drove me absolutely up the walls that the male narrator (who is doing a brilliant job narrating as such) kept pronouncing M0Rr1s’ name as Em-zero-one-is. Like, I get that that’s his alien name but there’s a reason the author made it look like a name that humans can pronounce. The same goes for most other alien names and titles which mostly just switch out the letter “o” for a zero and the letter “i” for a one. That said, I did love Christian Barillas’ reading in general, and the way he did different voices and accents. He did a great job and I would absolutely listen to more audiobooks narrated by him.
Joy Sunday, who reads Janelle’s parts of the story, didn’t work so well for me. Her tone always sounded annoyed and kind of aloof. She made Janelle sound like she felt she was better than everyone else, although that doesn’t fit the way her character is described at all. I also wasn’t a fan of Sunday’s intonation or the way she pronounces the “g” at the end of every word ending in -ing. It sounded like she said “I was thinkink” or “what are you doink“. I don’t know if that’s something they teach you in narrator school but it annoyed me. A lot.

Look, it always pains me when I pick up a book by a Black debut author and then don’t like it. But this book, honest to god, reminds me of my own first (and very unreadable) book that I wrote when I was 12 years old. This read like a first draft and I cannot understand how it went through the entire editing process without anyone mentioning the flimsy world building, the lack of excitement, or the discrepancies between how the characters describe themselves and how they act.
Every author whose first book I dislike gets a second chance. But much like Kalynn Bayron last year, Alechia Dow will really have to blow me away with her next book. Otherwise I’ll just have to admit that her writing is not for me. I expect more from the books I read, especially in a time when YA has grown so much and can do way more than tell a cheesy plot-less romance.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

P.S.: This was on my list of five star predictions which goes to show that synopses and blurbs can only go so far… I’m a little bummed out right now and hope my next prediction turns out more accurate.

Sci-Fi Jane Austen: Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars

For the 2020 Retellings Challenge, I finally picked up this Diana Peterfreund book which was on my list last year but I simply didn’t get to it. For some reason (the cover, probably), I thought this would be set in space or on a space ship or something – that was a very false assumption. The science fictional setting, firmly planet-side, was the weakest part of this book but the romance! Boy, did the romance work!

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS
by Diana Peterfreund

Published: Balzer + Bray, 2012
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: Dear Kai, My name is Elliot, and I am six years old and live in the big house.

It’s been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.
Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family’s estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot’s estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth–an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.
But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret–one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she’s lost him forever.
Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

This was such a charming book, told through Elliot North’s eyes and through letters she and her childhood love Kai wrote each other several years ago. Elliot lives on a Luddite estate with her father and sister. Her father spends money left and right without ever thinking about where more money is going to come from or whether other things should be prioritised – say food over a racing track, for example… Elliot’s sister is also lazy and while she has no problem taking credit for running the estate, she doesn’t actually do any of the work. Then again, Elliot may help out on the farm, but the brunt of the work load is done by the Reduced workers, who are essentially slaves. That was my first shock – I didn’t expect to read about a protagonist who belongs to a slave-owning family, no matter what it is called in this fictional future.

The entire world building was a bit rocky for me. Some time ago, humans had perfected the manipulation of genes and bodies so far that they “wanted to become greater than God”, giving themselves night vision, being able to run really fast, jump supernaturally high, etc. A group of people – the Luddites – refused to have any of these alterations done to themselves, believing it was against the will of God and unnatural. Then the Reduction happened which left the Luddites the way they were (humans without special abilities) but gave the enhanced people only children with limited abilities, creating the Reduced. The Reduced are presented as people with limited brain capabilities. They have trouble speaking, sometimes they cannot speak at all, but they are always shown as real people with feelings. I thought the concept of this was very interesting, but I still felt really iffy about them being held as slaves by the Luddites.

Elliot, as our steadfast heroine, is of course the only one who sees the Reduced as people, who makes friends among them, who cares about their wellbeing, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that she sees herself above them, that she owns them! However, recently the Reduced have had children who are not distinguishable from Luddites at all – they can talk, they can learn, but hey, they’re still slaves. Young Elliot befriends just such a Post-Reductionist boy named Kai. Through letters they wrote each other as children and young teenagers, we get to see their relationship evolve from friendship to budding love. Elliot has to learn how it feels to be forced into a life you didn’t choose by listening to her friend Kai. While she may want good things for her friend and the Reduced on her estate, she is still pretty stuck in her mindframe. The world has “always” been this way – the Reduced work for Luddites because it was God’s punishment for tempering with technology and gene manipulation or whatever – and that’s just the way it is.

As this is also a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, you may know what plot points to expect ahead of time. Kai goes away, asking Elliot to come with him. I did love Elliot’s reasons for refusing him – it’s not because he is a Post-Reductionist and it has nothing to do with the difference in their social status – it’s for a very, very good reason which I won’t spoil for you, even though it’s fairly obvious when you read the book. But four years later, Kai returns and calls himself Captain Malakai Wentforth (I love that choice of name!). He is now a successful young man working with other Post-Reductionist that have made exciting discoveries on their sea voyages.

And this is where the strongest aspect of this book starts to shine. The relationship between Elliot and Kai is set up only through their correspondence but when Kai returns and wants nothing to do with Elliot, I felt her pain! The way he ignores her, the way he spends all his time with the young daughter of the North’s neighbouring Luddite family, the way Elliot has to swallow her feelings every single day – it was excruciating to read. But you know, the good kind of excruciating. I don’t really know how Peterfreund did it, but she made me ship these two so hard and put me through all the emotions – and that’s in a book where I knew the ending because it is a retelling!

While I was initially put off by the world building, it does get better and more interesting over time. There is always a lot of tension and discussion about whether technology is bad in general, whether some technology could and should be used to make life easier for humans, or whether humanity should just embrace all the new inventions and discoveries despite of what happened in the past. As the Reduced are now having more and more post-reductionist babies, they argue that they are now immune to suffering from another Reduction. But the Luddites, stuck in the past and overly religious in a way, want nothing to do with that.

Although this is a Jane Austen retelling and I knew mostly what to expect, Diana Peterfreund has a few twists in store. This is where the world she has created really got to shine. She incorporates this devastated future vision into the Austen romance so well that it felt completely natural. I loved the twists and the impact they had on the story. I also particularly enjoyed the ending – not just because of the way the romance goes, but because of all the other elements which I can’t mention here for spoiler reasons. But again, the world that I had struggled to find my way into worked beautifully in combination with Kai and Elliot’s romance.

So with my false expectations for the setting of this book and with me turning from skeptical to fangirl within a matter of a few chapters, this ended up to be an altogether surprising read. The set up and world building – especially the story of how things ended up the way they are at the beginning of this book – could have used a bit more depth, but the characters were fantastic, the story moved at a perfect pace, and the romance is just swoon-worthy. I highly recommend this for fans of Jane Austen, especially those who couldn’t get enough of Captain Wentworth’s letter.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Damn good!

A mini update and my current reads

Hey everyone! As I’m currently on holiday in a sunny place, this post is coming to you from my phone. So don’t expect any shiny pictures or fancy formatting. I just had to let you know about my current reads and the fantastic books I’ve read so far.

Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

Boy, did this book surprise me! It started out as a nice fantasy story in an alternate China (with magic, but outlawed magic!) and then got better and better without me even noticing. By the end, I was a complete mess!! So many twists, such brilliant characters, great ideas and cool worlbuilding…. this is now one of my favourite books published in 2019.

Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars

This sci-fi retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion felt a little strange at first. The futuristic world felt a bit flimsy but that got better quickly. And the romance was absolutely amazing! I felt for these characters immediately and wanted nothing more than to push them together and see them happy.

Marlon James- Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I just started this so I can’t say too much about it but I really like the style. It6very different from most books I’ve read before but I like how this fantasy world incorporates African myths rather than the usual fantasy fare. Also, I am super intrigued by the narrator and I want to explore the entire gorgeous map.

So my holiday is going very well. We’re doing a lot of exploring and sightseeing but I have plenty of time to read as well. I hope you’re all doing well and may your current reads be as fantastic as mine. 😁

A Slightly Too Quick Wrap-Up: Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing

After being swept away by The Wicked King I knew I needed to read The Queen of Nothing as soon as it came out.  This conclusion to the Folk of the Air series was satisfying in the end, although it felt rushed and a little to neat at times. I wouldn’t have minded an extra 200 pages for more character development, more action, and more Jude and Cardan. But maybe that’s just me. Warning: Massive spoilers for The Wicked King below (don’t read the synopsis if you haven’t read the first two books!)

THE QUEEN OF NOTHING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown, 2019
Hardcover: 308 pages
Series: The Folk of the Air #3
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: The Royal Astrologer, Baphen, squinted at the star chart and tried not to flinch when it seemed sure the youngest prince of Elfhame was about to be dropped on his royal head.

He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.
Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.
Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.
Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.
And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

Jude is stuck in the real world with her sister Vivi and her little brother Oak. She does what she can to teach Oak to be a good person, but she longs to go back to Elfhame. Whether she just misses the power she once held, her friends from the Shadow Court, or a certain king, she’s not ready to admit. But we readers know Jude well enough by now to understand that she’s not made for our world. As mortal as she may be, she belongs in Faerie. And as it so happens, an opportunity arises when Jude’s traitor sister Taryn arrives and asks for help.
Pretending to be her twin, Jude returns to Elfhame, only to discover that war is brewing (again). In disguise (well, sort of), she has to navigate her old family, find out secrets, and also save King Cardan’s butt from being assassinated. But it’s only a matter of time until someone recognizes her for who she really is…

I really enjoyed how all the plot strings from the previous books come together here. Madoc’s mad grab for power has reached dimensions where they can only be resolved by outright war. Jude and Cardan’s dancing back and forth finally has an end. But that’s the first thing where I felt the story went a little too quickly. Sure, much of their relationship was based on misunderstandings or their inability to just come out and SAY WHAT THEY FEEL, but here, Cardan felt like a completely different character. Suddenly, he just tells Jude outright how he feels. As romantic and lovely as that is, it felt out of character and came almost out of nowhere. Although he does still have a trick or another up his sleeve just to drive Jude mad. 🙂

The plot about impending war and its various rival factions almost felt like background decoration to me. I was fine with that because, hey, I’m not ashamed to admit that I read this mostly for Jude and Cardan. But there was potential here to do more. Or to do what was done (Madoc’s plan for the Queen of the Undersa is fantastically vicious!) but more of it. Everything felt a little rushed. A lot of characters from the previous books show up again: the Bomb, the Ghost, the Roach, and Nicasia. And they each get stuff to do and play roles of varying importance, but it felt like a bit too much was stuff onto too few pages. So I didn’t dislike any of this book, I just wanted more of it. Certain scenes could have lasted longer, some chapters could have been added just to give us a break between action-packed ones. But these are just my complaints and they’re not even really complaints… I’m just sad it’s over.

But there is maybe a bit too much plot for a 300-page book. So Jude needs to get back to Faerie, she needs to save her sister, there’s a war brewing, she finds out the queen of the Undersea is threatened, her friends are in danger, and then at one point, a prophecy about Cardan comes up – because Jude doesn’t have enough on her hands already. I’ll let Cardan tell you about that prophecy himself:

“There was a prophecy given when I was born. Usually Baphen is uselessly vague, but in this case, he made it clear that should I rule, I would make a very poor king.” He pauses. “The destruction of the crown, the ruination of the throne—a lot of dramatic language.”

Of course, this being a fantasy book, this prophecy is important! But in finest faerie fashion, it can also be read several different ways and doesn’t have to be interpreted literally. Not that Cardan has been a great king so far, but throwing one too many parties doesn’t equal the “destruction of the throne”, right?

Holly Black wouldn’t be Holly Black if she didn’t add a twist or two to her story. The first comes to you earily on and courtesy of Cardan himself, the second happens much later in the book – and that’s where the real action kicked off for me. Jude has a difficult and emotional choice to make, backed by allies, threatened by enemies, and the question is: Will she prove once again that she can outsmart the Folk? I won’t spoil anything for you here, but let me say that I love how clever Jude is and how she knows to play the faerie’s games and use their tricks against them.

The ending, quickly as it happens, felt well-rounded and satisfying. Again, I would have liked a bit more information, more about what the future might hold, more about the various Folk and their fate. But overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast paced thrill-ride that played with my emotions just the way I like it. It wasn’t as good as The Wicked King but it’s a worthy ending to a great trilogy. And I kind of already want to start reading all three books again from the beginning…

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

 

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