What it Says on the Tin: Ahmed Saadawi – Frankenstein in Baghdad

I was thrilled when I saw that the 2020 Retellings Challenge had a bingo square for a retelling of Frankenstein. Not only did I enjoy the original Frankenstein way more than I expected but it’s a very different kind of retelling from the ones I usually read – which, let’s be honest, is mostly fairy tales. Plus, this is a translated book, it is set in Baghdad, and it was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. Those are all things of which I read way too few books, so instead of picking one of the YA Frankenstein retellings, I picked this one and I’m glad I did.

FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD
by Ahmed Saadawi
translated by Jonathan Wright

Published: Penguin, 2018 (2013 in Arabic)
Ebook: 287 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: With regard to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which is partially affiliated with the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq, the special committee of inquiry set up under my chairmanship, with representatives of the Iraqi security and intelligence agencies and observers from U.S. military intelligence, has come to the following conclusions:

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi–a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café–collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive–first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started this book. The very long list of characters at the beginning worried me a little, especially considering that this isn’t a very big book. But there was no need to worry and if you pick up this book, you don’t have to study the character list too closely. Like any good writer, Ahmed Saadawi manages to introduce his cast to the readers with ease, making each character distinct and believable, and I only once had to check back with the character list because I had two similarly-named characters confused.

This is a story told through several viewpoints. First, Saadawi paints a picture of Baghdad that makes what we read in the news feel way more real. Suicide bombers are a weekly occurence, bombs exploding, people dying… these things happen so often that people have come accept them as part of their daily lives. They are still terrible, of course, but nobody breaks into the kind of panic I would expect of myself if that happened in my city. So these first introductory chapters served not only to show us the first characters but also to set up the place for this story. As a fantasy reader, I usually don’t have trouble imagining crazy things, impossible places, or alien species. But to imagine living in a place where you or your loved ones could be killed in an explosion at any time was really tough.

We follow a cast of characters, among them the elderly Elishva who simply can’t deal with the grief of having lost her son during the war and still holds fast to the hope that he will just return one day. Her neighbor, the junkdealer Hadi, is probably the closest character to the original Victor Frankenstein – he collects body parts from the various explosions and stitches them together. Why? He’s not sure himself but after a while, he’s got a whole entire body made up of different people’s parts. Mahmoud is a young journalist with a secret past who admires his boss and discovers the story of Hadi’s creation. There are quite a few other characters that help flesh out the story but they aren’t what I’d call protagonists. And of course there’s the Whatsitsname itself.

Once the Whatsitsname (this book’s Frankenstein’s monster) comes to life, he follows a mission. That mission seems clear enough at first, but after being mistaken by Elishva for her long dead son and after witnessing certain events, the “monster” asks itself many questions about morality, good and bad, about when killing is justified. We don’t get too many chapters from the Whatsitsname’s point of view but the ones we do get are powerful!

While we follow each of the main characters on their own personal journey, they do intertwine every so often, making the story feel like a big whole rather than jumbled up short stories. I was quite taken with the writing style, so props to the translator as well as the author. I can’t quite describe it because it’s not particularly flowery, nor particularly stark, but it was unlike most books I’d read before. The prose flowed nicely so, despite the heavy subject matter, I read this book pretty quickly.

On the one hand, this book is exactly what you’d expect. It is Frankenstein in Baghdad. But you can’t just take a story set in Europe and place it in a different part of the world without changing anything. Where Shelley’s creature deals mostly with abandonment and loneliness, Saadawi’s Whatsitsname has the added burden of being made up of innocent terrorism victims’ parts and wanting to avenge them. So much happens between the lines that I still can’t put into words, but it was fascinating to read.

When all is said and done, I am quite happy to have picked up this book. Sure, it was tough to read at times because of its setting and subject matter, but it gave me a glimpse into a real place in our world, peopled with fictional characters who are as lovable as they are flawed, varied and interesting to follow. From now on, I will be on the lookout for more translated books and more settings I usually neglect.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted

Ever since I read the brilliant Magic for Liars, I have been determined to pick up whatever else Sarah Gailey publishes. Their newest novella is a post-apocalyptic western with gunslinging librarians, so there was no way around it. And although the book wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, I liked it for other reasons. This may not end up as one of my favorites but I can see how this book could be meaningful to so many other readers out there.

UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor.com, 2020
Ebook: 176 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: As Esther breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the horse blanketsin the back of the Librairans’ wagon, she chewed on the I-told-you-so feeling that had overwhelmed her ever since her father had told her the news about Beatriz.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”
Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.
The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

When I read, I love putting myself in other people’s shoes. I like pretending I’m a character from a different place, a different gender, even from a different species. I also like reading books where the protagonist has sexual preferences that differ from mine – because that’s what makes books so great. You get to be all sorts of people, you get to live with them through amazing stories, have great adventures, and experience so many emotions. I don’t believe that certain books are specifically for a certain type of person, but in this case, I felt like Sarah Gailey not only wrote a very personal book but also one specifically for people who struggle with similar things as the protagonist, who maybe haven’t found their place in the world yet or even think that there isn’t one for them.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about this book. It’s about young Esther who has run away from home and hidden in the cart of a traveling librarians’ group. When she is found out, to her surprise, the three women allow her to ride on with them for a while. Because Esther’s reasons for running away, it turns out, are very, very good. Her secret girlfriend was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials – and Esther is supposed to be married off to some man her father picked for her. You can see how that’s not a prospect she’s looking forward to. So out into the unknown she goes, in the hopes of becoming a librarian herself.

Sarah Gailey gives us many glimpses into the world she has set up, but sadly that’s all we ever get. It becomes clear that this wild west is a post-apocalyptic one. There used to be cars everywhere, now we’re back to horses and carriages. We’re also back to executing gay people. And let’s not forget that people only get to read Approved Material… It doesn’t take more than that to make it clear that America is not a very nice place to live in. And although what little world building we get is enough to set the scene, I always kept hoping for more.

But this book isn’t really about the world, nor is it about the plot which wasn’t very strong either. Esther travels with Bet, Leda, and Cye, three queer librarians with the task of picking up a parcel and taking it to the insurrection. So far, so exciting. And of course, trouble is hot on their heels, the law wants to hunt them down, and they have to keep many aspects of their personalities secret when they reach a settlement. But for Esther, this is the first time seeing a lesbian couple just living happily together. Dangerously, sure, but happily nonetheless. And Esther also can’t help but feel attracted to Cye, who makes clear from the very start that they are “they” on the road but “she” in town. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking to read about these characters. Carving out a little place in the world where they can be themselves, but having to hide who they are when other people are around…

While the book deals with a certain amount of adventure, it really is about Esther accepting who she is and being happy with herself. If all the books you were ever allowed to read were about husband and wives, and all the people you know are straight, it’s only understandable that Esther feels like something is wrong with her. Learning that that’s not the case, that in fact it’s the world that’s wrong, is what it’s all about. So you might call this a book that’s more about the message than the actual plot and I know some people have an issue with that. I don’t. Because if the message is this clear and told through great characters, then why the hell not? All of that said, I am white and cis and straight, so I don’t pretend even for a second to understand what Esther might feel like. I can try and imagine, of course, but I know very well that’s nowhere near the real thing. But even doing just that, putting myself in her shoes, I felt for her. I wanted her to be okay and I wanted her to see that she is fine the way she is.

Despite afterwords and acknowledgements, we readers can never really know how much of themselves an author puts into their work. But whether it’s true or not, this felt like a very personal novel. Sarah Gailey definitely can write and from the dedication and acknowledgements, I got the feeling that this is the book they wrote for their younger self. Maybe I’m totally wrong and they’re just really good at making up fantastic and diverse characters, but it’s definitely a book I would put into many young people’s hands. Not just queer ones, not only ones who seem to struggle with their identity, but everyone! Because the message that, no matter who you love or what color your skin is, you are valuable and you deserve to live a happy life – that’s something everyone should know.

I will be looking for reviews of this book from queer people because I suspect that this novella resonates with the LGBTQ community way more than it did with me. All things considered, I liked the book for its characters and the message of hope it sends, but I thought the plot wasn’t particularly strong and I would have liked more world building, more fleshing out of its science fictional setting. But this is a hard one to rate. For its importance, I would give this book 9/10 points, but I rate all the books on my blog first and foremost by my own personal enjoyment. So here goes…

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Messing Around With the Multiverse: Carlos Hernandez – Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

I was so delighted when I heard – halfway through this book – that it had been nominated for the Andre Norton Award! Carlos Hernandez is married to one of my favorite authors of all time (C.S.E. Cooney) so even though I had never read anything by him before, I knew ahead of time that I would love his work.  And while I didn’t love this book as much as the other middle grade novel I read recently, it was a lot of fun, chock full of great ideas and lovely characters. It definitely deserves its nomination.

SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE
by Carlos Hernandez

Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
Ebook: 382 pages
Series: Sal and Gabi #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.

How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared. Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk. A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.

Sal has just moved to Miami with his Papi and American Stepmom and his first week at school is… let’s say eventful. Dealing with bullies, making new friends, trying out his magic tricks on unsuspecting students or teachers – and that’s just one side of the coin. Because Sal also has a strange ability. He can open portals into parallel universes and “borrow” things from them – which you’ll have guessed makes doing magic way easier and quite a bit more awesome. While many reviews of this book mention that it is overloaded with ideas – a claim I have read about two middle grade books I’ve read recently and which makes me wonder if people just don’t have confidence in younger kids being able to understand stuff… like seriously, they’re young, not morons! – so obviously, I disagree. Sure, many ideas are introduced here but Hernandez does so slowly without ever overwhelming his readers with too much at once.

Things start out pretty normal. We do get to see Sal using his ability in the very first chapter, but many of the other ideas are introduced later over a longer period of time. At first, he just has to deal with the bully Yasmany, student body president Gabi’s many questions, and the fact that some people at school think he’s a brujo. Which leads me to the first reason I enjoyed this book so much. Sal has Cuban roots, so there are quite a few words and phrases, sometimes even entire lines of dialogue, in Spanish. When the plot calls for it, these are explained or translated by Sal, but when it’s not that important, there is no translation. From the reviews I’ve read, this has made quite a few people unhappy. Not me! Sure, I speak just enough Spanish to have understood everything anyway, but even if I hadn’t, I felt that it just added a layer of realism to the story. Many of the characters are native Spanish-speakers so it’s only natural that they would end up talking Spanglish a lot. Again – if the information conveyed in Spanish was vital to the plot, it was repeated in English, so there is no way you can actually miss anything even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish.

The characters reminded me a lot of a Becky Chambers book. Not because we’re dealing with alien species here, but because they are a diverse mix of super nice human (sometimes robot) beings. If I had been in a different mood whilereading this, that might even have been annoying. There’s only so much sucrose I can take in a book. And everyone is just so damn nice and understanding all the time! But my mood was just right and so I enjoyed Gabi being super mature for her age, Sal always trying to see other people’s perspetive, and the teachers being kind and helpful. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely not a representation of what goes on in the real world but sometimes it’s nice to read about a bunch of characters who simply try their best to be good people. The fact that Sal is a type-1 diabetic probably helped him be aware that you can’t necessarily see what a person is going through just by looking at them. He looks healthy after all, but that doesn’t mean his life is super easy all the time. And who knows, maybe even that bully isn’t just mean for the fun of it?

This is one of those books where you can’t really pinpoint what the plot is but it  kind of flows nicely anyways. On the one hand, Sal’s opening portals may have severe consequences on the universe (thus the title). On the other hand, he has to prepare a play for school, deal with his diabetes, help his friend Gabi through the tough time of dealing with a very sick baby brother, and make sure his portal opening doesn’t accidentally summon more than he planned. It is a lot, I give you that, but I never felt like it was too much at once. Sure, Hernandez randomly introduces AI into his story at some point, and I’m not sure that was totally necessary but all things considered, I really enjoyed following Sal in his day to day life. He has a loving family who is not without its problems. His parents are lovely, but Sal’s mother died a few years ago and Sal still misses her painfully. Which leads to even more problems but I can’t tell you more about that without spoiling.

Sal and Gabi aren’t on a quest per se, but they have many things going on. Gabi worries about her baby brother who is in intensive care and might not survive. Sal mostly worries about the calamitrons his portal opening has unleashed and whether his latest portal will eventually close. But there’s very little our two protagonists can actively do to help these “quests” along. So I was quite surprised when Carlos Hernandez managed to write an ending to this story that came to a satisfying (and partly hilarious) conclusion. This ended up being a lovely middle grade book that definitely made me want to read the next instalment. The only negative things I could say about it are the overwhelmingly nice characters (but again, if you’re in the right mood, that’s a feature, not a bug) and the fact that the language is not outstanding. The prose flows nicely enough but there wasn’t anything special about it. So. Not really a critique. I’m just nitpicking. 🙂

I will read the next book for sure, but I may just save it up for a time when I’ve had too much grimdark and I’m in the mood for a bunch of wonderful, caring, diverse characters to lift me up.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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!

The Sequel is Better: Marissa Meyer – Archenemies

It’s been quite a while since I read the first book in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades trilogy and, as I said in my review, I mostly remember the good parts and have forgotten all the book’s problems. Despite my failing memory, I feel confident in saying that this sequel is much better than the first book because it finally gets the plot moving. Plus, it’s a quick read with nice action, a little romance, and very cool ideas. Not necessarily a book that would get an award but so much fun that I can’t help but love it.

ARCHENEMIES
by Marissa Meyer

Published: 2018
Ebook: 560 pages
Series: Renegades #2
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Adrian crouched on the rooftop, peering at the delivery entrance behind Gatlon City Hospital.

The Renegades Trilogy continues, in this fiercely awaited second installment after the New York Times-bestselling Renegades by Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles.

Time is running out.
Together, they can save the world.
But they each other’s worst nightmare.

In Renegades, Nova and Adrian (aka Insomnia and Sketch) fought the battle of their lives against the Anarchist known as the Detonator. It was a short-lived victory.
The Anarchists still have a secret weapon, one that Nova believes will protect her. The Renegades also have a strategy for overpowering the Anarchists, but both Nova and Adrian understand that it could mean the end of Gatlon City – and the world – as they know it.

Nova and Adrian are back and their secrets are as much in danger of being found out as ever. Nova is still hiding her real identity as the Anarchist Nightmare, posing as the Renegade Insomnia, and Adrian – who is known as Sketch – still hasn’t told anyone about his alter alter ego the Sentinel. And things are brewing in Gatlon city as a villain named Hawthorn is stealing medical supplies which then show up throughout the city, altered and used as drugs that claimed several people’s lives…

Nova has a new plan to retrieve Ace Anarchy’s helmet and hit the Renegades where it hurts. Except that plan also needs her to stay close to Adrian and maybe even make him fall in love with her. Because when feelings are involved, people slip up, and Nova may just find out important secrets from the boy she’s not quite pretending to flirt with.

The Renegades have also developed a new and terrifying weapon – one that can take away a prodigy’s powers. Forever! What I particularly liked about that was the question of whether this weapon should even ethically be used. Sure, the Renegades are of the opinion that they’ll only use it “on bad guys” but who decides who’s bad and who’s good? And who makes sure accidents don’t happen? Nova asks these questions outright from the start, with varying responses from her teammates. And while we are meant to sympathise with Nova first and foremost, we also know there are bad guys in this story and they deserve punishment. But whether such a horrible, irreversible method should be used is definitely food for thought. My stance on the matter is pretty clear but I like that ethics and human rights play such a big part in this YA book.

The lines between good and evil or Renegades and Anarchist also get blurrier and less easily defined than in the first book. Of course the entire premise of the story is that all prodigies have the potential to use their powers for good or not-so-good but I still found that the Anarchists were pretty obviously more reckless and didn’t care as much about civilians’ lives lost, if that served their bigger cause. Nova’s reasons for hating the Renegades so much were always rather weak and in this middle book, she learns more and more that not all Renegades are the same, that most of them truly do want to help people and that she doesn’t entirely disagree with them.

What I also enjoyed was that it becomes much clearer why the way the Renegades run Gatlon City may not be the best, even if they have good intentions. Nova’s biggest criticism is that civilians rely too much on prodigies to save the day and don’t even bother acquiring the skills necessary to take care of themselves. While this was mentioned several times before, it is only in Archenemies that it is really shown for the problem it is. Because if everyone just lies back and waits for the Renegades to solve their problems, it not only drains the Renegades’ resources (there are many prodigies, but their number is finite) and it paths the way to a less and less educated population. I was rooting pretty much for the Renegades in the first book and waited for Nova to come around, but  after this one, I see that neither option – Renegades or Anarchists ruling – is a good one and people will have to think of a new and better solution to run their society.

The plot is as exciting as you’d expect from Marissa Meyer. While her characters may not be very deep, they are always involved in great action scenes, quieter moments with plenty of romance, and in this case many situations that are tense simply because they are keeping so many secrets from each other. The ending is a culmination of many plot strings. Everything comes together in one pretty explosive climax that made me itch to pick up the next book immediately. I won’t spoil anything about it, but let me just say that things really go batshit. Stuff happens that will change this world forever. The setup for the third novel makes sure that we, knowing more than the characters, are more excited than ever about how Nova and Adrian’s story will end. Because there is no easy solution to these kids’ problems… they’ve just been sliding deeper and deeper into trouble and I am there for it!

I always mention this when I talk about Marissa Meyer’s books and I want to repeat it here again. This is kind of a guilty pleasure for me because I could nitpick so many things, so many little flaws about this book (the at times uneven pacing, the cheesy lines, the romance, how oblivious certain characters are, etc.) but Meyer’s writing is just so damn engaging and fun that I just don’t mind these things. When I pick up her books I’m not looking for literary enlightenment. I just want to have fun, to fall into an exciting story with characters I can root for, and maybe a few cool twists on the way. And she delivers exactly that. I don’t want to sound snobbish either when I say this because as much as I appreciate authors playing with language, the world would be a much sadder place if that was all there was to read. I will gladly keep throwing my money at Marissa Meyer because, boy, do her books make  me happy.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Superheroes and Spies: Marissa Meyer – Renegades

In my ongoing attempt to continue and finish book series I have started, I decided to finally pick up the sequel to Marissa Meyer’s Renegades. Which in turn made me realize I had never even reviewed the first book here on the blog. So I’m writing this more than a year after having read the book and many things have become hazy in my memory. But I do remember the most important bit, which is that – much like Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – I really enjoyed this book in a guilty pleasure sort of way. 🙂

RENEGADES
by Marissa Meyer

Published: 2017
Ebook: 563 pages
Series: Renegades #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: We were all villains in the beginning.

Secret Identities. Extraordinary Powers. She wants vengeance. He wants justice.
The Renegades are a syndicate of prodigies — humans with extraordinary abilities — who emerged from the ruins of a crumbled society and established peace and order where chaos reigned. As champions of justice, they remain a symbol of hope and courage to everyone… except the villains they once overthrew.
Nova has a reason to hate the Renegades, and she is on a mission for vengeance. As she gets closer to her target, she meets Adrian, a Renegade boy who believes in justice — and in Nova. But Nova’s allegiance is to a villain who has the power to end them both.

Marissa Meyer’s second series, after her wildly successful and ridiculously entertaining Lunar Chronicles, takes a step away from fairy tales and explores the world of superheroes. Nova is one such superhero, or prodigy as they are called, who lives in Gatlon City. Her parents were killed when she was just a child and ever since then, Nova has held a grudge against the Renegades – the superheroes who were supposed to save her family from the villains who killed them. It’s a pretty weak reason to join a group of villains set out to destroy the Renegades if you ask me, but if you just get over that one glaring problem, this book is a lot of fun.

But let’s start with the basic set up, because things do get a little confusing. The Renegades (officially good superheroes) fought against the Anarchists (the villains) a while ago after an age of Chaos. Many people died and many more were hurt. The Renegades now are a powerful society of gifted humans with all sorts of cool, weird, or funny superpowers. The world pretty much works according to the Renegades’ rules and while they have learned from past mistakes and implemented a code that is meant to protect civilians, their decisions are law. It’s an intriguing set up that immediately poses the question of who decides who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Because obviously, it isn’t quite that simple.

Nova is an Anarchist hoping to avenge her dead parents and destroy one of the most powerful Renegades there is – Captain Chromium. Raised by her uncle, Ace Anarchy, the leader of the Anarchists, she was born into the life of a supervillain, although of course she sees herself and her friends as the Good Guys.
Our second protagonist, Adrian aka Sketch, is a Renegade – equally born into his role as a superhero – who wants to take down the Anarchists. He also hopes to figure out who killed his mother, Lady Indomitable, and he also has a big secret. Adrian’s ability is to draw anything and make it real. So if he draws a worm, he can take it out of the piece of paper and it’s an actual, live worm. That’s a pretty cool power and Adrian has figured out that if he draws tattoos on himself, he can create his own new superpowers. As the Sentinel, his secret identity, he hopes to help the Renegades even more in their quest to vanquish the Anarchists.
The Anarchists decide that it would be amazing if they had a spy among the Renegades and send Nova to compete in the trials looking for new Renegade members. Nova’s superpower is not needing any sleep and being able to put people to sleep with her touch. As an Anarchist, she goes by Nightmare, but in her new Renegade identity, she is Insomnia.

You can see how this book can get confusing but the whole secret identity thing also makes it incredibly compelling. Both Nova and Adrian have to worry constantly that their secret will be discovered, so even during the quieter scenes, there is a feeling of tension. One wrong word and Nova’s scheme will blow up. She also has to try to work against the Renegades while keeping up the pretense of working for them. Adrian, on the other hand, never wanted his Sentinel identity to stay secret but a certain turn of events makes it necessary for him to hide it. So you can expect scenes that almost reminded me of romantic comedies where one person pretends to be two people, leaving the room as one character and returning as another. Adrian needs to turn into the Sentinel occasionally, but then he has to explain where his regular self was during that time, and Nova faces the same problem as Nightmare/Insomnia.

The plot itself doesn’t actually have that much to offer. There are exciting action sequences and of course a budding romance, which I enjoyed a lot. But there isn’t that much story there. Most of the book is concerned with Nova infiltrating the Renegades, learning the ropes, and hiding who she really is. Meyer does do some groundwork for what I suspect will become the overarching story, though. A side character named Max is held in quarantine in the Renegades headquarter because of his particular superpower. Finding out what that is was part of the reason I kept reading. The whole Anarchist/Renegades shenanigans themselves weren’t that interesting because, while fun to read, they never really pushed the story forward. Until the very end, that is, when some things are revealed, but mostly more questions pop up to be (hopefully) answered in the later books. This reads more like an introduction to a story rather than a story in its own right, but if you’re okay with that, it’s still a lot of fun.

Renegades also doesn’t provide much in terms of side characters. There are plenty of them but they are as forgettable as they are difficult to tell apart. It doesn’t help that each one of them has a civilian name and a superhero/supervillain name. As they all remain pretty bland and are reduced mostly to their superpower and maybe a quippy line here or there, I didn’t remember any of them (seriously, not a single one) until I started the second book. And even now (20% through the sequel) I don’t really remember them, I feel like I’m meeting them for the first time. That’s not a good sign…

I read some other people’s reviews of this book in order to jog my memory and I have now learned two things. Number one: Boy, this book got some negative reviews! Not hateful ones, but really thoughtful, critical ones that point out everything that’s wrong with it. I remember when I first read the book I was a bit underwhelmed as well, but now, a year later, I seem to only remember the fun bits. Number two: I have forgotten so much! Again, not a good sign, but considering how “meh” this book was received by many reviewers, maybe it’s for the best that I kind of blacked out all its flaws?
Many people had problems with the clichés but I just assumed those happened on purpose. Because this is a story about superheroes and villains… I mean, you’d expect some cheesy dialogue, flowing capes, and somewhat predictable battles, right?

This review is probably not what it would have been had I written it right after reading the book, but what I remember was really not that bad. Sure, the romance is obvious, the side characters were pale cardboard cutouts, and there wasn’t much plot. But Meyer put so much creativity into her characters’ superpowers and she writes action scenes so well that I found the read quite engaging. Her prose may be on the simple side, but its straight-forwardness makes this such a page turner. Renegades is clearly not be on par with the Lunar Chronicles, although those books too weren’t particularly good from a critic’s standpoint. I am an unabashed fan, however, and I am determined to enjoy this series as well, regardless of the many sensible voices telling me why I kind of shouldn’t.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Alien Politics and Space Travel: Brandon Sanderson – Starsight

I really loved Skyward – the YA sci-fi adventure I wouldn’t have expected from Brandon Sanderson – so naturally I didn’t wait long to pick up the sequel. After the revelations at the end of the first book I didn’t think Sanderson could deliver another surprise of such proportions. Silly me… it’s like I haven’t learned anything at all from reading all his epic fantasies. There are always more secrets to discover and more twists I didn’t see coming. This review will be spoiler-free, however there will be HUGE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SKYWARD BELOW!

STARSIGHT
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2019
Hardcover: 468 pages
Series: Skyward #2
My rating: 8/10

First line: I slammed on my overburn and boosted my starship through the middle of a chaotic mess of destructor blasts and explosions. 

Starsight picks up about six months after the end of Skyward and Spensa and her friends have established themselves as competent pilots in the DDF. Spensa is still her daring, ambitious old self although her mission has changed. The things she found out at the end of the first book lead humanity on a whole new path to freedom from their prison on Detritus. All they want is to live in peace and prosperity, on a planet where aliens don’t constantly attack them. But in order to travel through space, humans have to find – or steal – the necessary technology. Or Spensa has to figure out her abilities and use them for the good of her people…

Starsight was surprising, not only because it has the usual Sandersonesque mind-blowing twists, but at first because the setting and plot were totally different from what I expected. Spensa doesn’t spend much time on Detritus (or in its orbit) but takes an opportunity that arises to travel to the aliens who keep humanity imprisoned and try to steal FTL technology right out from under their noses. Where the first book was about Spensa becoming a pilot, this one is her trying to be a spy… sometimes more and sometimes less successfully. She does have M-Bot with her, however, who not only guarantees great dialogue and some truly funny scenes but who also is more a friend than a sentient machine by now. I really found myself caring deeply about that AI and not just because he’s trying to figure out himself whether he could be called “alive”.
The question of what makes a living being arises on many occasions and M-Bot’s musings on the topic range from ridiculous or funny to really deep and thought-provoking.

When Spensa arrives on the titular station Starsight, she is not only confronted with the problem of how to infiltrate her enemies’ home and steal secret technology from them, but she also meets several different alien species in the shape of people who may even become friends. I was very impressed with all the new side characters introduced in this book. They are each distinct, they have their own personality and mannerisms, and their alienness – although mostly not very striking – does come through. Morriumur the dione and Hesho the kitsen especially grew dear to me, but even the characters I didn’t like were well-written. The difference between how the Superiority live and how Spensa grew up was particularly stark – and the rules for letting “lesser species” becoce part of the Superiorty were… interesting to learn.

The plot, now that I think about it, isn’t actually all that original or all that different from the first book. Spensa is once again put into a cockpit and has to train with other people to defeat an overwhelming enemy. However, the enemy has changed, as have her wingmates. And there’s also the fact that she’s pretending to be someone else in order to steal from the people she’s slowly getting to know… That’s the reason I really liked this book so much, I think. Spensa’s realization that the aliens she’s been fighting on her home planet are also just people – some good, some bad, but each with a life of their own, a family, maybe a pet – happens gradually, and then all at once. It shows not only that the world is bigger than Spensa (and we readers) originally thought but it also makes Spensa grow so much as a person. I was super proud of her!

M-Bot also put me through all the emotions in this book. There are certain things he can’t talk about or do to himself (changing certain parts his code, copying himself, etc.) but he keeps wondering if he could be called alive and what even makes someone alive. I won’t spoil anything but M-Bot is in danger on occasion – after all, he is Spensa’s ship – and I was shocked how worried I got about that space ship. Even if at the end of the series it turns out M-Bot is nothing special, just a very complex AI who’s been programmed with sarcasm, I will love him to bits until the very end!

There was one twist that I saw coming just a bit more than the others Sanderson has in store for us. Let’s just say the Superiority isn’t all that subtle with its politics or its ways to control other species. And maybe the whole “writing for a YA audience” thing just got out of hand for a moment.  Figuring out one plot point  a few moments before the protagonist did made no dent in my reading enjoyment, but I was surprised that the answer to this burning question was something I could actually come up with myself. But worry not: There are more revelations and more twists and more hints about things to come, none of which I expected. Just like after finishing Skyward, I want the next book RIGHT NOW and I don’t know if I can wait two years to find out how the story ends.

If you liked the first book, you will like this one as well. Just be warned that you don’t get to see much of the side characters from Skyward. But I believe the third book will put together all the characters from the first two books in one epic finale and, man, I cannot wait!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Sanderson does YA Sci-Fi: Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I actually read this book right after it came out in December 2018 but last week I saw I had never reviewed it. As I have turned into quite a Sanderson fangirl, this situation could not remain! The man is known for writing excellent epic fantasy with brilliant twists, so this foray into both science fiction and YA was mostly new. I had read Steelheart – the first in Sanderson’s other YA series – and liked it okay but not enough to continue the series. So to sum it all up: I was very curious to see what Skyward held in store and I was not disappointed.

SKYWARD
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2018
Hardback: 513 pages
Series: Skyward #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Only fools climbed to the surface.

Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.

Young Spensa dreams of nothing more than to become a figher pilot like her father and defend her planet against the attacking alien Krell. Even though her father – and his death – brought shame on the entire family. Because the ace pilot did something so horrible that it cannot be forgiven – he was branded a coward – Spensa’s family has been shunned and Spensa’s chances of even getting into flight school are pretty much nonexistant. Jobs are assigned according to young people’s strengths but pilots tend to come from families who already have established pilots. Needless to say, cowards’ daughters don’t count…

There’s so much to love about this book, starting with the writing style. Sanderson is always immensely readable but when he does YA, he becomes even more so. The pages just fly, you forget the time only to realize it’s three in the morning and you’ve finished most of the book without noticing. It’s truly engaging and Spensa being a highly likable narrator only adds to that. Spensa is dedicated from the get go and she never stops following her dreams, even though many, many rocks are put in her way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell  you that she does get into flight school (although not easily) because the meat of the novel is how Spensa fares there.

I loved that although she is a gifted young woman, things don’t just fall into her lap. She may be a natural in the cockpit but that doesn’t mean she is immediately able to fly. In fact, Spensa struggles as much as her classmates, if not more, to just get a handle on her ship. The first lessons were filled with hilarious scenes of Spensa and her classmates failing to control their ships. And that’s without having to deal with all the rivalry, people looking down on her for having a coward father, or generally thinking she and her entire family are worthless. Learning to fly takes as much from Spensa as trying to make friends and prove herself worthy of being a pilot. Of course, she also doesn’t believe her father really was a coward and wants to find out what really happened. I can promise you there will be a secret or two waiting in store but probably not what you think.

This being a Sanderson book, you can also expect fantastic worldbuilding. The story is set on the planet Detritus where most people live underground because the surface is frequently attacked by the Krell. That’s why fighter pilots are so important as they are the only defense humans have against this alien threat. I loved how the world was set up, how the differences between the rich and the poor are made clear (it’s not pretty, let me tell you that) and how these people’s entire lives are based around the fact that you can’t see the sky. Questions of class differences are raised on many occasions and since we follow the underdog Spensa, it’s easy to side with those less fortunate. However, even the spoiled rich kids aren’t one-dimensional. Sure, they may have had an easier life than Spensa but that doesn’t mean  they don’t suffer from their own problems and challenges – they are simply different ones.
Another prominent theme is the question of what makes a hero. Spensa has heard many tales from heroes of Earth but she herself is still trying to figure out who she is, how she can be a hero, and why her dad seemingly wasn’t the hero she had always thought. The question isn’t discussed in detail (maybe because Sanderson thought it would be too much for a YA audience?) but I liked that it’s a constant that keeps coming up and makes you think about heroism yourself.

Now I’ve already said a whole lot and I haven’t even mentioned the sentient spaceship M-Bot, or Spensa’s snail friend Doomslug. It does take a while until Spensa finds that spaceship but trust me when I tell you it’s one of the highlights of this novel. Spensa finding an abandoned spaceship is one thing (and a pretty cool one at that) but said space ship literally having a mind of its own makes for some hilarious dialogue and wonderful dynamics between these characters.
The side characters were also interesting although they didn’t stick in my mind as much as Spensa or M-Bot did. And that’s maybe the one reason why I’m not rating this book higher. Don’t get me wrong, I had so much fun reading this but unlike other books by this author, the details didn’t really stay with me all that long. I had to look up character names so I could write this review (which isn’t a bad thing, especially when you read a lot of books, but I never for a second forgot any of the character names from Sanderson’s other books). The same goes for certain plot elements. I remember loving every page and enjoying myself thoroughly while reading it, but by now the details are a little hazy. However, that’s about the only negative thing I can say about this.

This wouldn’t be a Sanderson novel if it didn’t have a whole lot of unexpected twists in store. And it’s the same pattern as always – I think I see something coming or at least I think I have a vague idea what the twist will be about, and then it turns out I’m completely wrong and Sanderson comes up with something I totally did not expect and which knocks me off my socks. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter because you should all have as much fun as I did discovering what’s really going on and having your expectations turned upside down. It made me incredibly excited about the second novel Starsight (which I’m currently reading*) and I can’t wait to see what revelations are waiting for me this time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Brandon Sanderson, it’s that I can trust him completely to take me on a wild ride and always deliver a fantastic ending.

*Sanderson does a brilliant job of reminding his readers what happened in Skyward in the first few chapters of the second book. So if you also read this a while ago and are worried that you don’t remember enough details or characters, don’t worry. Just dive into the sequel, it will all come back. 😉

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

P.S.: This is one of the cases where I have a massive cover preference for the UK editions. I really don’t like the US covers for this series. I think the illustrations are beautiful, but they just don’t fit the novel very well, in my opinion.

 

Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen

This book took me way longer to read than expected. As a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen (the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) and a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I thought this would be just my jam. And it was enjoyable to some degree but it just never really grabbed me. Which is probably why it took me two months to finish the thing…

THE SNOW QUEEN
by Joan D. Vinge

Published by: Tor, 1980
Ebook: 495 pages
Series: The Snow Queen Cycle #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one. 

The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. Their only chance at surviving the change is if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space. Interstellar politics, a millennia-long secret conspiracy, and a civilization whose hidden machineries might still control the fate of worlds all form the background to this spectacular hard science fiction novel from Joan D. Vinge.

I’ll start this review with my very first impressions and those didn’t happen in chapter one, but rather with the author’s note. Normally, I find forewords interesting as they give some background info about how a book came to be or what inspired it. Joan D. Vinge was the first author ever that I slightly disliked after reading the foreword. I had never read anything else by her, I hadn’t read a ton of reviews of her books, I like to think that I approached this novel quite neutrally, or leaning towards positive. After I finished reading the introduction however, I felt like I’d just read a list of pretexts as to why the author didn’t publish for a while or why she published things that others may have disliked… Again, I knew nothing about her or her work and writers can publish or not publish whatever the hell they like, if you ask me, but reading this author justifying herself felt rather petty to me. This was not the best start for reading my first Vinge novel.

But when I got to the actual story, I quickly forgot all about the author and simply basked in the very interesting world she has created. On the planet Tiamat, people are divided into Summers and Winters. Winters are more tech-loving, logical people while Summers hold to spiritual traditions and felt like a more earth-bound people. The divide between technology and a more agricultural life was tangible from the very beginning of the novel, but the story holds much more world building in store. The Hegemony needs Tiamat because of a certain ressource that can grant you prolonged (maybe even eternal?) youth but it also needs Tiamat to stay technologically backwards enough that they don’t gain power over the Hegemony. It’s a super interesting concept that asks questions of colonialsm, “advanced” versus “backwards” planets and the value of human and animal lives compared to personal gain.

On that world, Moon and Sparks have grown up as Summer children and eventually young lovers. They both hope to become sibyls – a sort of Summer prophet who is said to have a connection to the Lady and be able to answer all questions truthfully. When only Moon is chosen as a sibyl, Sparks goes to the Winter city of Carbuncle, where the Queen rules. I really enjoyed his initial culture shock. Not only does his gullibility send him into dangerous situations right away but we also learned more about how different the worlds of Summer and Winter really were. And we see through Sparks’ eyes just how powerful and enticing the Queen can be. A chain of events sends Moon on an adventure of her own, but I want to say as little about the plot as possible to avoid spoilers.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. Some side characters grew on me quietly, others I disliked, but most of them felt quite fleshed out and three-dimensional. My favorites were probably the police offices – the Blues – Jerusha and Gundhalinu. In alternating chapters we follow Jerusha, Moon, Sparks, the Queen herself, and a handful of other side characters. Each of them brings their own point of view to the mix and lets us experience the truly amazing world through different eyes. The world practially built itself that way and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The other thing I liked, although it took a while to get going, was how this is a retelling of The Snow Queen. It’s not the most straight-forward retelling but I kept stumbling across elements of the original fairy tale again and again, and every time I made a connection I was happy. Sparks being drawn in by the Queen Arienrhod and turning more and more into a creature of ice, Moon undertaking a journey in order to save her boyfriend, the people she meets on the way, it’s all there.

The reason this book took me a ridiculous amount of time to read, however, was the writing style. This was one of those books that was fun enough as long as I was reading but whenever I put it down, I had no desire whatsoever to pick it up again. So I read other books in between. And then some more books. And every time I saw the cover of this one, I felt slightly guilty that I still hadn’t finished it, so I’d pick it back up again and start reading and wonder what my problem was. It was fine, why didn’t I want to know what happened next? I still can’t answer that question properly but I suspect that old timey writing style and the way some things just take ages to move along may have had to do with it. It is a well-written book but the style didn’t really grab me. It felt a bit outdated (even though I usually don’t mind that) and although I appreciated the characters, I never built an emotional attachment to them – the one exception being Gundhalinu at the end of the story. That guy really grew on me and I wanted his story to have a happy end so badly.

All things considered, I did like this book and I loved the world building, but it’s not a book I’ll remember super fondly. I would like to read the sequel simply because I can’t get enough of the world Vinge has created and I want to learn more about it, but knowing myself, it’s probably going to be a few years before I build up the motivation to dig into that.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

 

Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

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

GIDEON THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay