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

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

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

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

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

OBSIDIO
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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

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

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE
by  Becky Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Nnedi Okorafor – Broken Places & Outer Spaces

I have read many of Nnedi Okorafor’s books and loved most of them, so there was no question that I’d read her non-fiction book about how she came to be who she is today. Prior to this, I had no idea she had suffered paralysis at a young age and that it was at least partially responsible for her becoming a science fiction writer.

BROKEN PLACES & OUTER SPACES
Finding Creativity in the Unexpected

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Simon and Schuster/TED, 2019
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First line: The beach was just the way I loved it: empty, its waters comfortable and clear, a few sand crabs dashing around.

A powerful journey from star athlete to sudden paralysis to creative awakening, award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor shows that what we think are our limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths.
Nnedi Okorafor was never supposed to be paralyzed. A college track star and budding entomologist, Nnedi’s lifelong battle with scoliosis was just a bump in her plan—something a simple operation would easily correct. But when Nnedi wakes from the surgery to find she can’t move her legs, her entire sense of self begins to waver. Confined to a hospital bed for months, unusual things begin to happen. Psychedelic bugs crawl her hospital walls; strange dreams visit her nightly. Nnedi begins to put these experiences into writing, conjuring up strange, fantastical stories. What Nnedi discovers during her confinement would prove to be the key to her life as a successful science fiction author: In science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks.
In Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Nnedi takes the reader on a journey from her hospital bed deep into her memories, from her painful first experiences with racism as a child in Chicago to her powerful visits to her parents’ hometown in Nigeria. From Frida Kahlo to Mary Shelly, she examines great artists and writers who have pushed through their limitations, using hardship to fuel their work. Through these compelling stories and her own, Nnedi reveals a universal truth: What we perceive as limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths—far greater than when we were unbroken.
A guidebook for anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is an inspiring look at how to open up new windows in your mind.

When I started reading this book, I felt almost embarrassed at how little I knew about an author whose work I love so much. All I’d  known about Nnedi Okorafor was that she’s from Nigeria and writes fantastic books. This memoir gives a great insight into how she became the writer of such briliant books as Who Fears Death, the Binti  Trilogy or Akata Witch.

Nnedi tells of her childhood as a star athlete with a multitude of sporty career options. She also had a curved spine which – doctors told her – could be fixed easily in an operation with only 1% chance of paralysis. So teenaged Nnedi undergoes that operation because it will spare her many years of physical problems in the future. As you may have guessed, Nnedi’s operation is that one percent and she wakes up from anesthesia and can’t move her legs. What follows is one of the most impressive tales I have ever read. Naturally, while reading, I put myself in Nnedi’s position and although I don’t know how I would react in her situation, all I could think of was utter despair. And I’m not even an athlete the way she was. I don’t think any able-bodied person can imagine what it’s like to have your world, your goals, your future plans shattered like that. But instead of falling into despair, Nnedi did something amazing. She started writing!

But this book is about much more than Nnedi’s paralysis. It tells of a childhood and adolescence in a loving family but in racist surroundings. It also shows Nnedi’s unbreakable spirit in the little stories of other people whose “brokenness” has helped them grow beyond what they could have imagined. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s possible miscarriage and her creation of the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or Beatrix Kiddo’s tragic story in Kill Bill – these were interesting bits of information that teach you that life doesn’t have to end when bad things happen. These things can even be opportuinities.

There are also many tidbits in here that readers of Okorafor’s fiction will recognize. Whether it’s medication-induced hallucinations of giant bugs, the concept of “treeing”, or the masquerades – all of these things made it into the science fiction books I’ve read and loved. It felt like an Easter Egg hunt that let me say “Oh, so that’s when she thought of that.” every few pages. It also gives her novels some context and makes them even more meaningful than they already were. For example, it made me see Sunny’s albinism and her inability to play football  during the day (because of the sun) in a different light. Not being able to pursue your hobby because your body won’t let you is something that Nnedi experienced first-hand. So although she doesn’t outright say so in this book, I believe this may have played a part in her creation of Sunny and Sunny’s own disability that actually turns out to be a strength in Akata Witch.

Nnedi does eventually regain the use of her legs, but not like before. I learned about proprioception, which is the ability of our brains to know where our legs are, even when we can’t see them. If that sense is out of whack, walking becomes something you have to concentrate on, rather than just doing it instinctively, without looking. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of that – think about driving a car when you can’t feel the brake pedal under your foot! Or walking in darkness. So this book opened my eyes in more than one way. It taught me about conditions I had never heard of before and although I don’t know anyone who is or used to be paralysed, I hope this new information helps me understand them better.

The thing about this book that stuck with me the most was definitely the hopeful tone. Again, I believe every single person deals with these things differently, and I can only go by how I think I’d react. And although I’d like to think of myself as brave, I don’t think I would have Nnedi’s strength. It made me appreciate her as more than an author. I may not know her personally, but if I ever get the chance to meet her, I would love to shake her hand and tell her how damn impressive I think she is. Not just because she didn’t let her paralysis take her down but because she took this incident and turned it around, she made something amazing of it, she used it to fuel her creativity and wrote stories that touch people all over the world.

If there is anything about this book that wasn’t perfect, it’s probably its lack of length. It gives you the basic story of how Nnedi turns “brokenness” into something powerful, but I’m sure a lot of details were left out. The book is no less powerful for that  but I honestly would have liked to read more of it. More stories of Nnedi standing up to teenage bullies, more about her siblings and parents, more information about how she started writing and what inspired her. But that’s just my subjective wishes. This book, the way it is, is amazing and I recommend it to everyone, whether you already know and love Nnedi’s fiction or whether she’s an author you’ve never read.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

An Icy Fairy Tale: T. Kingfisher – The Raven and the Reindeer

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading one of T. Kingfisher’s retold fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll have already bought all the rest. But just in case you don’t know the brilliant mind and practical heroines of T. Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger), then let me tell you why you should absolutely give her a try.

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2017
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?
A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, not so much because of the setting or the idea of having a piece of magical glass mirror stuck in your heart or eye, but because it was the one fairy tale I read as a kid where the girl goes out on a proper quest, where she meets witches and robbers, and has to be incredibly brave to save her friend. I also discovered a Finnish movie version that was, to me, utterly perfect. The musical score still breaks my heart and the imagery pops up in my mind whenever someone mentions The Snow Queen. So I’m invested in this story!

I have loved everything T. Kingfisher has written, so I was quite surprised when the beginning of this book didn’t really grab me. It read like a proper fairy tale – but like the bad parts of a fairy tale. Descriptions of plot, characters that are little more than names with maybe one attribute to them, and nothing to create any kind of immersion. The beginning read like the raw material out of which great fairy tale retellings are grown. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, to be told how cold it is in the North, why Gerta loved Kay so much that she’d be willing to go out into the world and save him. And because I trust T. Kingfisher, I kept reading. And I was rewarded.

Although the beginning does drag a little if you don’t want to read a story told just like a fairy tale, it gets better and better the longer Gerta has been on her journey. The stops she makes and the people she meets start to feel less and less like little episodes and more like parts of a whole, bigger story. And by a certain point, we were right back in that well-beloved Kingfisher fairy tale territory that I had hoped for. It just took a little longer this time than in The Seventh Bride or Bryony and Roses.

Gerta does meet some characters from the original fairy tale, but they aren’t exactly the same as you’d expect. She also meets new characters, such as a raven and a reindeer (I know, bit surprise). The way these Nordic myths were incorporated into the reimagined fairy tale was probably my favorite part. I grew to love both raven and reindeer so much that I was sad when the story was over. The reindeer especially offers something new to discover even for crazy fairy tale lovers such as myself – for us, a straight forward retelling can sometimes feel a bit boring because we know everything that’s going to happen. So I always look for the parts that the author added, maybe took from other fairy tales, from myth, from history, or even from pure imagination, to keep me hooked. T. Kingfisher succeeded in that.

But there is another twist on the original tale here, one which most blurbs and synopsis will tell you beforehand, and which I don’t consider a spoiler either. On her travels, Gerta meets a Robber Girl, and in this version, the Robber Girl gets a personality and a mind of her own. And she may just fall in love with our protagonist a little bit… As Kay isn’t all that great to begin with (flying off with the Snow Queen, leaving his Gerta behind. I mean, how cold is that [pun a little intended]), I found it absolutely wonderful and refreshing to see Gerta figure out her own life without the need for Kay. Oh, she’s an amazing friend and definitely wants to save him, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be his girlfriend. Instead, she discovers what she values in people, she sees what it’s like when someone sticks by your side through the bad times as well as the good, and she learns to just love whom she loves.

If you’ve picked up this book and didn’t like the beginning, I urge you to push through it to get to the good bits. Because they are so good they make it all worthwile. I started reading this with a lot of disappointment, thinking Kingfisher had lost her deft hand at rewriting fairy tales with feminist twists, clever heroines, and believable romances. But a little patience did the trick and I was rewarded with another lovely, heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery, magic, and love. And reindeer! Never forget the reindeer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if trusted people on the interwebz hadn’t raved about it so much. As I don’t read much short fiction, I had never heard of Martine before, but I am all the more impressed with this debut novel of hers. It’s already a contender for my Hugo nominations for next year.

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE
by Arkady Martine

Published by: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 462 pages
Series: Teixcalaan #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident–or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion–all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret–one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life–or rescue it from annihilation.

This was a dense book and even at 462 pages, there isn’t anything in it that I’d call filler material. The story begins when Mahit Dzmare arrives at the capital of the Texcalaanli Empire where she is to take over from the previous – now deceased – ambassador Yskandr Aghavn. But she’s not alone, not really, because her people on Lsel Station have developed a technology that preserves memories and lets you implant them into people. So essentially, Mahit is carrying a copy of Yskandr (outdated by 15 years, but still) in her mind when she arrives for her new job.

She is given a cultural liaison to help her navigate this place that is vastly different from her home. I immediately adored this liaison, Three Seagrass. Although the Teixcalaanli people aren’t known for emotional outbursts, Three Seagrass  was a wonderfully bubbly, eternally optimistic kind of character who was impossible to dislike. She takes her job seriously and truly wants to help Mahit navigate the imperial court. Oh yes, and there’s also the small matter that Yskandr seems to have been murdered…

What starts as a sort of murder mystery in space soon grows into something much bigger. Not only is Teixcalaan a fantastically interesting culture to discover and learn about, but Mahit’s own culture is just as intriguing. Over the course of the novel, we get to see more of both worlds, and I was there for all of it. I honestly wouldn’t even have needed a plot because finding out how Lsel’s imago machines work would have been enough to keep me interested. Add to that a brilliant cast of characters, court intrigue, and that murder mystery, and you’ve got a great novel right there.

As in any good story, things don’t go smoothly for our protagonist. Not only are there several attempts on her life, but her Yskandr imago isn’t working as it should, leaving her without the help she so depended on. Then there are players in this game of imperial thrones who all have their own plans, none of which Mahit understands at first. She doesn’t know whom to trust and she desperately wants a friend to confide in. And then there’s the fact that she is considered a Barbarian, not part of the Teixcalaanli Empire, and essentially an outsider. For someone who just wants to belong somewhere, that is an added psychological weight to what is already a strained situation.

I won’t tell you anything about the plot, only that it is well put together, with things falling into place and making sense by the end. Mahit Dzmare, Three Seagrass, and Twelve Azaelia were excellent characters with great interactions, but even the side characters who appear less frequently felt like real, fleshed-out people. So when somebody turns out to be a traitor, or when a character dies, it is meaningful and never just a plot device. Even the Emperor didn’t feel like your regular head of state who only thinks of annexing more and more places in the universe. He has layers just like everyone else. To get characters this well done in a debut novel is really impressive, so I’m all the more curious to see where Martine takes the story in the sequel.

This book also deals with the idea of Empire itself, of a power so great that it eats up everything else, a culture that absorbs (and possibly destroys) other cultures. Mahit may be from Lsel Station and she may love her home and want to preserve it the way it is, but she is by no means immune to the appeal of belonging to something as great as Teixcalaan. I loved how this story didn’t simplify things into Bad Empire vs. Small Independent Culture – Mahit’s culture isn’t automatically “the good guy” just as Teixcalaan isn’t purely bad. The book doesn’t take sides, it simply shows us this world the way it is and lets us draw our own subjective conclusions.

Although it took me a long time to finish this book, there wasn’t a single page that bored me or took me out of the reading flow. But it is a book that demands to be read slowly, simply because it packs so much information – about the characters, the plot, the world, the technology – onto every page. In addition to amazing characters, Arkady Martine also managed that without info-dumping. The world simply becomes clearer and clearer the more you read, and by the end, I felt that I had a true sense of what it’s like to live there. That said, there is way more to discover in  Teixcalaan and I hope we get the next book very soon. And if Arkady Martine decides to write something completely different, I’ll be picking that up too. Because boy, am I impressed!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Growing Up in a Fairy Tale: Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places

This is a book that I would normally never pick up. Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest – we all do it to a certain degree. And this cover has been begging me not to read the book. But it did win the Mythopoeic Award in 2012, I read all the other nominees and thought, if this book won over Cat Valente’s Deathless, there must be something to it. And it was definitely much better than the cover made me expect. But not so good that I personally would have given it an award.

THE UNCERTAIN PLACES
by Lisa Goldstein

Published by: Tachyon, 2011
Paperback: 237 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: It was Ben Avery who introduced me to Livvy, Livvy and her haunted family.

An ages-old family secret breaches the boundaries between reality and magic in this fresh retelling of a classic fairy tale. When Berkeley student Will Taylor is introduced to the mysterious Feierabend sisters, he quickly falls for enigmatic Livvy, a chemistry major and accomplished chef. But Livvy’s family-vivacious actress Maddie, family historian Rose, and their mother, absent-minded Sylvia-are behaving strangely. The Feierabend women seem to believe that luck is their handmaiden, even though happiness does not necessarily follow. It is soon discovered that generations previous, the Feierabends made a contract with a powerful, otherworldly force, and it is up to Will and his best friend to unravel the riddle of this supernatural bargain in order to save Livvy from her predestined fate.

Will Taylor tells the story of how he met Livvy Feierabend and learned about all the strange things that surrounded her family. Will and his best friend Ben are college students in the 70ies, soon they both go out with the elder Feierabend sisters Livvy and Maddie, and not long after that, Will discovers that there is something strange about that family. It’s not just the strange, massive house they live in, or the fact that their vineyard has always been going well. It’s the behaviour of the three daughters as well and the way they react when people make innocent jokes about fairy tales.

Fairy tales, you see, are something the Feierabends have some real experience of. I don’t think the first quarter of the book can be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll tell you that Will discovers why the Feierabends always seem to succeed in whatever they do, and what kind of prize they pay for that. Naturally, young and in love as he is, Will wants nothing more than to break that blessing/curse because he dreams of being with Livvy forever.

What follows is an interesting tale that intertwines fairy tale elements with real world issues. We get to see Will and his friends grow into adults, some even into parents. We see the effect that dealing with people from the Other Realm has on everybody’s lives and we delve deeper into the past to find out the truth of the fairy bargain at the heart of this novel. There was much to discover and lots of hints to well-known fairy tales. The particular tale that is important in The Uncertain Places may not be one we know in the real world but it feels like it could be and there certainly are many variants of its plot. As a fairy tale lover, I really enjoyed how well Goldstein managed to mix these fictional bits in with fairy tales we have in our world as well.

The plot was also quite  fun. Breaking a curse and dealing with faeries (or whatever you want to call them) usually guarantees a thrilling book. And there were scenes that I had to rush through because I needed to know what happened next. But there were also chapters that deal more with everyday issues, such as Will’s job, his marriage, or traveling from one place to another to see how old friends are doing.

The only problem I had – and sadly, it’s a big one – was that I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Sure, Will was likeable and I wanted him to succeed, but I didn’t really care about anyone. I was watching them, doing their thing, hoping that everything would turn out well in the end, but the story didn’t absorb me, it didn’t evoke any particular emotional response in me. And what makes it worse is that there was so much potential. The Feierabend family were all put in a really interesting situation that involved hard choices. The girls grew up with a cloud of tragedy hanging over their heads, knowing that any day, the bad thing that happens could happen. But the story is told by Will, in first person, so we never really get to see the more intersting characters’ point of view.

Had this book told through multiple POVs or even in third person omniscient, I think it would have been a much more exciting story. By showing us Will’s limited point of view, the best parts of the story are kept at a distance. I wanted to know what it was like being Maddie or Livvy growing up, or Rose, the third daughter who was always left out of the elder girls’ games. Or even Sylvia, their mother, who may be blessed with fortune but has been left by her husband and constantly has to worry about her daughters. But we only get glimpses of that through Will’s eyes and if you ask me, those eyes, perceptive as they may be, only see a small part of what’s there.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read, but neither the writing style nor the characters felt in any way award-worthy to me. This is the kind of book that I like to compare to a night at the movies, where you enjoy the movie while you’re watching it but when you get home afterwards, you already forget all the details. A week later, you don’t know what the characters were called and the whole thing turns out to be not particularly memorable. As well as the fairy tales were interwoven with a story set in our world, it didn’t lift the book over an average rating for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

The Dream Chooses the Dreamer: Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer

Sometimes, everything about a book is just right. While many books have lovely covers, only few manage to offer a story that equals it. This is a book where the feelings you get when you look at the cover (I have the UK edition which is my absolute favorite) actually give you a hint of what you’ll find inside. Something magical and strange, where the color blue is important, where moths are more than just annoying creatures that come out at night… I loved everything about this book!

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Hodder & Stougthon, 2017
Hardcover: 536 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

There are some books that take a while to draw you in, to make you feel part of their world, to turn characters from strangers into friends. Not this book! From the very first chapter, I was captivated, I wanted to learn everything about the world into which Laszlo Strange had been born. When I read that Laszlo’s nose had been broken by a book of fairy tales, I was already utterly in love with him – and so will many other book lovers.

Strange the Dreamer is about many things, but at its core, it is about a city. A city Laszlo first encountered in stories he heard as a child, a city filled with magical beasts, and brave warriors, and colorful markets. When one day, Laszlo – and everybody else – loses that city’s name from his mind and memory, he knows magic is real and wants to solve the mystery of what is now called Weep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I say that the city is by no means a fairytale and it has much bigger problems than a missing name… And Laszlo of course wants to solve them.

It is a rare book that gets me so emotional in such a short span of time. At the very beginning, when we still get to know Laszlo Strange and his life as an apprentice librarian, we watch him play Tizerkane – one of the legendary warriors from the city of Weep. I got so swept up in his dreams that I wanted the legends to be real as much as Laszlo did. When, shortly after that, something happens to Laszlo that is brutally unfair, I felt real anger on his behalf. I was only a few chapters into the book and already I felt like Laszlo was my friend! That is no small feat and I can only applaud Laini Taylor for it. She is equally deft with her other characters. Whether we’re meant to love or hate them, see them for the multi-layered people that they are, be uncertain of whether we like them – she does it all beautifully and has created a cast of amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time.

As the title would suggest, this book is like falling into a dream and the writing style goes perfectly with that theme. Lush descriptions, beautiful quotable passages, natural-sounding dialogue – I couldn’t find a fault with it even if I tried to nitpick. In fact, this book was so gorgeous (inside and out) that I dragged it  out the further I got to the end. I know there’s a second book – it has moved onto my shelf in the meantime – but the longer I can spend with Laszlo and the others, the better.

Speaking of the others, there are quite a few and all of them are interesting, even though I wouldn’t want to know all of them in real life. Thyon Nero, an alechemist prodigy, may not be in direct competition with Laszlo (as a librarian, he doesn’t exactly have a high social status), but he is something like Laszlo’s childhood rival, nonetheless. But although he seems to be the first “villain”, we soon learn that there is more to Nero than meets the eye. Sure, he may be a jerk most of the time, but there are reasons for that and it’s not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, we have characters like Sarai, who became an immediate favorite. I won’t say much about her because although we meet her early in the book, there are a few twists and surprises that I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that she leads a pretty difficult life, filled with magic and monsters and moths. Yes, you read that right – moths. The cover isn’t just pretty (soooo pretty), it is actually meaningful. Sarai’s inner conflict would have been enough to fill an entire book, but pairing her story with Laszlo’s created something new and wonderful.
Then there’s Eril-Fane, lauded as a hero who has saved his city, and sure… he kind of did that. But again, there is way more to his story than you may think at first.

It’s quite difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. And it’s not even that there are that many plot twists, but the way Laini Taylor slowly unveils the secrets of her story is so utterly perfect that I don’t want to ruin it for you guys. She puts characters we love into impossible situations, she gives us moments of pure bliss, and moments of absolute desperation. And, at the end, she  puts a knife in our hearts and twists it around – because authors are evil, I guess. But, you know, the good kind of evil.

This was a story that will stay with me for a long time. Reading it was a wonderful experience, trying to figure out how to solve the various problems, speculating where the story might go, it was just pure fun. I haven’t been this emotionally engaged in a book for a while and although I really want to know how the story ends, I am also a little hesitant. Because once I’ve finished the second book, it will truly be over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

A Classic Fantasy Re-Read: Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s a rare occasion for me to re-read a book. The few things I’ll gladly re-read are the Harry Potter books or anything by Cat Valente. But to pick up a book I didn’t even enjoy that much the first time has really never happened before. Thanks to the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon, however, I took the opportunity to dive back into the world of Earthsea so I can finally continue the series. The second time around, the book fared a little better than the first, but the same things that bothered me the first time, still bothered me now.

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Parnassus Press, 1969
Hardcover: 206 pages
Series: The Earthsea Cycle #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an  ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

This is the story of Ged, a young boy with immense magical talent, who first learns from his witchy aunt in his home village, then becomes apprentice to a mage on his island, then moves on to magic school where he is trained properly in the arts of magic. During his time at school, Ged unleashes an ancient evil, a shadow that follows him wherever he goes from that moment  on. Now it is up to the young sorcerer whether he will forever keep running or face his fear and gain his freedom.

The plot as such is – nowadays – nothing groundbreaking. It seems like your standard fantasy novel, a coming of age tale about a boy wizard in a magical world. But we must not forget when this book was published and that there wasn’t anything like it then. Take alone the fact that there is no great war, no armys of Evil against which our protagonist has to fight. Instead, his battle is a quieter one, with a shadow he himself has set free in the world. Ged’s coming of age is mostly dealing with the consequences of his own actions as well as accepting who he is and finding his place in the world. We may be lucky enough today to have many fantasy books with similar premises but in the late 60ies, I’m sure this was pretty mind-blowing.

As Ged’s story unfolds, we make pit stops (literally) at many of fantasy’s standard tropes. There is a dragon to defeat – or at least to keep at bay – and people in power trying to abuse it. There are villages to be visited on the journey, friends to be made, and school rivals to defeat. And of course, there is the entire Archipelago and beyond to discover via boat and sometimes even on wings.

My biggest problem – both on my first read and this time around – was how very distant everything felt. The writing style is like a fairy tale without all the whimsy. We are served simple facts, we are told how Ged feels, we are told everything that happens in dry langage, without any apparent wish to let the reader get immersed. That doesn’t make the story bad, but it also never let me get close enough to feel anything. I didn’t every get the feeling that I was truly discovering the Archipelago with Ged. Every village seemed much like the last, even if Ged didn’t always receive the same kind of welcome. The world just didn’t come alive. The times when Ged physically encounters his shadow were the only instances where I felt something. And I did want him to succeed, to be free of the thing that haunts him, but while reading, I mostly felt like I was examining an interesting specimen under a microscope. I wasn’t in the story but on the outside, looking in, if you know what I mean.

There are also many hints as to Ged’s further adventures and accomplishments, mostly in throwaway lines that nonetheless make me interested to continue the series. I also heard that the second book will have a female protagonist and female characters of any kind were lacking in this book. In the Afterword, LeGuin explains that, for the time the book was published, she actually subverted the current standard by including women characters, and not just window-dressing women but ones with power who use or abuse it. The fact that most of the characters are also People of Color is another bonus – one that may not have appealed to publishers, judging by the many white-washed covers and the movie adaptation…

While I remember being bored a lot of the time when I first read this book, I didn’t feel that way this time. I wasn’t riveted, because the whole story happened to characters I wasn’t much invested in, but this was a quick read. The story entertained me, it made me want to learn more about the world of Earthsea and the many amazing deeds that lie in Ged’s future. But was this a standout book for me? One that I’ll remember for a long time? Not really.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!