Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

Magical Immigrants: Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni

Sometimes I’m a bit slower than the rest of the world to discover great books. The Golem and the Jinni had been on my radar since it was first published and then it even went on to win a Mythopoeic Award (along with many other award nominations), which I follow closely because the nominees are usually books I end up loving. Thanks to the Retellings Reading Challenge I finally picked this one up and it was everything I had hoped.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
by Helene Wecker

Published by: Harper, 2013
Hardcover: 486 pages
Series: The Golem and the Jinni #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

The story begins with the creation of the Golem, initially thought up to be a companion to a carpenter moving to New York. He wakes up the Golem on the ship (although he wasn’t supposed to), and promptly dies, leaving the Golem without a master, without a purpose, stranded in a new world, with not a single friend to guide her. She may look like a human woman, but she is a newborn Golem with no idea how human society works.

Almost at the same time, Arbeely, a tinsmith in Little Syria, is brought an old copper flask to fix, out of which emerges a Jinni. The Jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for ages, is bound into human form by an iron clasp around his harm, and battles against the loss of his magic, his life in the desert, and the world he has now been thrown into.

You can see, the idea and the characters alone are intriguing enough for a novel. The Golem, later called Chava by a kind rabbi who knows her for what she is and takes her in, and the Jinni, named Ahmad by his now-employer Arbeely, are living through a special kind of hell. Because Chava has no master, whose thoughts she can hear and obey, she now hears everyone’s thoughts, their dreams and desires, their anger and frustration – naturally, that gets overwhelming fast. And as is her nature, she wishes to fulfill those needs, to grant those wishes, not knowing that it’s not always possible. Ahmad, in the meantime, finds some solace in the metalwork he does for Arbeely. With the use of his (quite magical) hands, he forms metal the way no human could. They get by, in a way. But they are both without direction, without purpose.

At first, this book is just magical. Two mythical beings, trying to hide their true selves from humanity, trying to make a living, to find a reason to live in their new society, was just beautiful to read. Once Chava and Ahmad meet and form a tender sort of friendship, things get even better. The dynamic between these two very different beings was bound to be tense. Chava, built to be obedient, to always behave properly, and Ahmad, impulsive like the fire he is made of, thinking more of his own pleasure than other people’s feelings. Don’t expect quippy banter like you’d find in a YA romance novel, but rather deep conversations about important Life Stuff – but with a hint of banter. Everything I like about bickering couples (although Chava and Ahmad are friends, not lovers) is there, it’s just more subtle, and therefore maybe more powerful.

But there is even more to this book, simply on a plot basis. Ahmad does not remember how he came to be bound in his flask. In flashbacks, we find out exactly how that came to be. His life in his glass palace in the desert, his meeting with a group of humans, and ultimately his capture. Chava’s creation is clear from the start, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have repercussions. Her creator, Yehuda Schaalman, meddles in dark forces (otherwise how could he have created a Golem so life-like as to pass for a human woman?) and gets it into his head to search for the power of immortality. The synopsis is wrong, by the way. Chava’s master dies at sea, her creator remains alive and kicking in Poland! Until, that is, he decides to follow his creation to America.

Although I would describe this as a quiet sort of book, a lot of things do happen, and there’s even an epic showdown at the very end. Whether it was descriptions of Chava’s work at the bakery, Ahmad’s romantic escapades, or their nighttime walks together, it always felt like something was going on. So this is the sort of quiet book that doesn’t have loud action on every page but feels like it nonetheless.  I can’t even tell you what I loved best about it. The Golem and the Jinni became very dear characters in a short amount of time, but so did the humans that surrounded them. These side characters don’t simply remain on the sidelines, their stories get told too, and they are sometimes more tragic and more beautiful than the Golem’s or the Jinni’s. Helene Wecker has built a whole little world, peopled with believable, sympathetic characters, that I didn’t want to let go of.

And I haven’t even mentioned the setting. We’re at the turn of the century (1890ies-ish) and while Chava is taken into the Jewish community by Rabbi Meyer, Ahmad lives in Little Syria. As I said, some side characters have their story told, but even the ones that don’t help to create a vivid, culturally diverse setting that felt vibrantly alive. Simply reading about neighborly interactions between the habitants of Little Syria brought a smile to my face. They may not be family by blood, but these people look out for each other. Similarly, although culturally different of course, the Jewish community that Chava moves within sticks together and wants the best for its people. Chava’s workplace becomes a whole little family of itself, and Chava, although she is seen as strange by many, is welcomed into it. Again, what a joy to read!

The writing is just exquisite. It isn’t particularly flowery or particularly stark, it’s just always right for the part of the story it’s telling. When things get rushed, the writing adapts, when there’s a quiet character moment, there is more description, when the protagonists experience happiness, the writing feels happier (if that makes sense). When we’re in Chava’s head, different things are in focus than when we’re in Ahmad’s head. I don’t know how to describe it other than always just right. And although I didn’t think this book would have an ending as thrilling as this, even then Wecker managed to seamlessly carry us readers into the action-packed scenes that make up the finale. I may have shed a tear or two…

This book was an absolute pleasure to read, from the very first page to the very last. So you can imagine I am more than thrilled that a sequel of sorts is in the works. Whatever Helene Wecker decides to write next, I’ll be there for it!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Wonderland Without the Wonder: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts

I love Alice in Wonderland but, strangely, I haven’t read a lot of retellings set in Wonderland. I really enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Heartless but that’s the only one I can think of. So it was about time to take a trip to Wonderland and see what Colleen Oakes came up with for the Queen of Hearts’ origin story. While the author may have had many ideas, the execution was sadly lacking. In fact, this entire book turned out to be rather a mess.

QUEEN OF HEARTS
by Colleen Oakes

Published by: Harper Teen, 2014
Ebook: 319 pages
Series: Queen of Hearts Saga #1
My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: “Get up, get up, you’re late!”

Only queens with hearts can bleed.
This is not the story of the Wonderland we know. Alice has not fallen down a rabbit hole. There is no all-knowing cat with a taunting smile. This is a Wonderland where beneath each smile lies a secret, each tart comes with a demand, and only prisoners tell the truth.
Dinah is the princess who will one day reign over Wonderland. She has not yet seen the dark depths of her kingdom; she longs only for her father’s approval and a future with the boy she loves. But when a betrayal breaks her heart and threatens her throne, she is launched into Wonderland’s dangerous political game. Dinah must stay one step ahead of her cunning enemies or she’ll lose not just the crown but her head.
Evil is brewing in Wonderland and maybe, most frighteningly, in Dinah herself.
This is not a story of happily ever after.
This is the story of the Queen of Hearts.

Sometimes when I rate a book badly, it’s because it made me angry. This is not the case here. In fact, this book left me completely emotionless and that’s almost worse. What a convoluted, incoherent jumble of ideas and plot strings, written as if for a 5-year-old, with the flattest, most one-dimensional characters ever. And yet… I don’t even care. Nothing about this book made me care, nothing made me feel anything, the most emotion it got out of me was an eye roll. But let’s start at the beginning.

Dinah is the Princess of Hearts, soon old enough to be coronated and rule alongside her father. Her father, the current King of Hearts, is not really a character, he is just an angry ball of shouting and violence. He has no personality, there is no reason for his behaviour, he simply hates Dinah and screams a lot. But at the start of this book, he brings a new member into the family. His illegitimate daughter Vittiore, half-sister to Dinah. This could have gone in such an interesting direction. Dinah is naturally shocked at the revelation of even having a half-sister, of realising her father betrayed her (now dead) mother with another woman, of having to welcome the result of that betrayal into her family. But let me tell you this: Vittiore doesn’t show up again in that book until almost to the end… So much for that.

Dinah is also in love with one of the servants of the palace, Wardley. They are already best friends, and from what can be gleaned from the writing, they are both in love with each other but haven’t admitted it yet. While I absolutely don’t think every YA book needs a romantic sub-plot, it would have been lovely to get one here. But no, the lovers are already established, even though they are only friends for the moment. The only reason I mention this is because this book has so very little plot that a romance would at least have given me something. Oh well.

The actual plot starts pretty late into the book, what with establishing all these potential sub-plots first that go nowhere, with a secret message that tells Dinah to find a certain woman. This woman, it turns out, is a prisoner in the Black Towers, and this was the only halfway interesting thing in this entire story. Dinah and Wardley have to devise a plan to get into the Black Towers, find this Faina Baker and learn what she knows, and get back out alive. That part would actually have been exciting to read, but this is where the over-simplified writing cuts in.

The author never shows us, always tells. And even when she tries to let her characters and their actions speak for themselves, she hurries to clarify afterward, in case us readers didn’t get it. It made me feel incredibly patronised, like Colleen Oakes doesn’t trust her readers to have some degree of intellect. Take this for example (emphasis mine):

“Don’t look down,” he instructed Dinah. She did, her eyes following a crooked crack in the ice. Buried up to tis waist, frozen forever, was a skeleton. Its bony fingers dug into the ice, the claw marks inches deep. The scream on its face was etched there for eternity, the jawbone hanging grotesquely from its hinge.
Dinah gave a shudder. “Was that…?”
Wardley pressed his body against the wall. “Done on purpose? Yes. I told you the Black Towers were a brutal place. Club Cards find many ways of extracting informtation, mostly by torture.

Why, thank you, dear Wardley, for clarifying to us dumb readers that Wonderland prison guards use torture on their prisoners to extract information. The skeleton and the hint of “having many ways to extract information” really weren’t enough for us to get it. I don’t know if other readers are as bothered by this as me, but this was not the only time the author talked down to her readers. It happens over and over and over.

And much in the same vein, all the “secrets” and potential plot twists are painfully obvious. It’s not only apparent who Faina Baker is once Dinah and Wardley talk to her, it’s also clear from the very beginning who’s pulling the strings behind all the other things that happen at the palace. Speaking of which… everything that does happen is so wildly unconnected and makes so little sense that I asked myself more and more why I was reading this. I didn’t care about the characters, or I didn’t get to know the ones properly that could have been interesting (Vittiore, Dinah’s mad hatter brother Charles) and the story goes absolutely nowhere.

When I say nowhere, I mean that quite literally. Because this book also doesn’t have an ending. It is not part one of a trilogy, it is part one of a novel that has simply been split into three physical books. But as there was very little plot in this one, the characters are idiots and the writing is for idiots, I will not be finding out how things continue for Dinah. The few nice ideas simply weren’t enough to convince me, and there was very little Wonderland feeling about this book. It was rather an original fantasy novel with names and places taken from Lewis Carroll. Again, I didn’t hate this book. It had too little substance for that.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Not good

Fairy Hunger Games: Peadar O’Guilin – The Call

As premises go, this one’s got me hooked immediately. An alternate Ireland where all teenagers eventually receive The Call – which means they are transported to the Grey Land, the fairy realm if you like. Except the fairies there are bloodthirsty, horrible creatures, who hunt the humans down, torture them, turn them into strange creatures, and generally have a good laugh at their suffering. So yeah, that premise reminded me a lot of how I felt when I first heard about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Now all that was left to do for this book was stick the execution.

THE CALL
by Peadar O’Guilin

Published by: Scholastic, 2016
eBook: 320 pages
Series: Grey Land #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom.

3 minutes and 4 seconds. The length of time every teenager is ‘Called’, from the moment they vanish to the moment they reappear. 9 out of 10 children return dead. Even the survivors are changed. The nation must survive. Nessa, Megan and Anto are at a training school – to give them some chance to fight back. Their enemy is brutal and unforgiving. But Nessa is determined to come back alive. Determined to prove that her polio-twisted legs won’t get her killed. But her enemies don’t just live in the Grey Land. There are people closer to home who will go to any length to see her, and the nation, fail…

Nessa has known about The Call for a while. She goes to school – which, considering the situation Ireland has been in for the last decades, isn’t like regular school. Nor does it have the charms of Hogwarts. The kids there are taught to fight, to run, to track and keep from being followed. The methods are sometimes brutal, like leaving first years naked in the woods in the middle of the night, terrified and with no idea what’s going on. But nothing could be as bad as what’s actually going to happen to these kids. For when they receive The Call, when they are transported to the Grey Land, naked and with no supplies, they will need all the skills they can gather to survive. They may only have to last 24 hours in the Grey land, but a mere one in ten manages to come back alive. And even then, they are usually changed severely. If not physically, then definitely psychologically. The survivors are celebrated but they rarely join in the happiness.

With an idea like that, you know you’re in for something grim, maybe even gorey. The chances of survival are slim but Nessa has the additional challenge of misformed legs from the polio she had as a child. She makes up for her lack of speed with strength, especially in her arms. And although she realises that the fact that she just can’t run like the other kids makes her even less likely to survive, she works around that. By making herself crutches from tree branches, and by using the expertly! What Nessa also does to survive the inevitable Call is close herself off from all feelings. That may be quite sensible and mature, but it also made her a very hard character to like. Through her POV, we know that although she fights against them, she does have feelings for her best friend Megan and for Anto, one of the boys in her school. But the way she acts is cold and so I had a hard time identifying with her as the protagonist.

The story is told through multiple POVs, sometimes recurring, sometimes a character we only meet once. I found this added much needed layers to some of the side characters, but the one who stood out the most was Conor, the school bully. He likes to think of himself as a king, and his cronies are the Knights of his Round Table. He looks down on Nessa – calling her Clip! Clop! – and others who show any kind of physical weakness in his eyes.

If you expect this book to be mostly about Nessa surviving the Grey Land, think again. The bulk of the story takes place at school, showing the reader what life there is like, what kind of punishment the kids face if they misbehave (it’s called The Cage… you can imagine it’s not nice) and what their lessons look like. Some of Nessa’s school mates receive the Call during this story and when they do, we jump into their point of view and live through that nightmare with them. And trust me, it’s always a nightmare!

But I also had a big problem with these trips to the Grey Land. The kids are only gone from the real world for three minutes and four seconds, but there, they have to last an entire 24 hours. We, as the readers, go with them to the Grey Land and while many of them die there, there are survivors. And in no way did I believe for a second that the plot we got to read could have stretched out an entire day. Sure, there are passages where we’re told the teenager in question is running for a long time. But not 20 hours long! The chapters are very short which makes for a thrilling, entertaining read, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to actually buy that the time certain characters spent in the Grey Land were 24 hours.

The second big plot point happens in the real world. Strange things happen at school and in the surrounding woods, a different school is wiped out entirely, which suggests the work of Sidhe spies. So in addition to Nessa’s already cold personality, she can’t know whom to trust or who might be a fairy in disguise, trying to kill all the teenagers before they even make it to the Grey Land and have a chance to come back.

I found the plot as such really interesting and I loved the idea – dark as it is – of the Call itself. There are some truly gruesome things that happen to teenagers, both the ones that return alive and the ones who only come back as corpses. The Grey Land and the mythology that goes with it was also intriguing and I look forward to learning more about it in the second book. But I couldn’t help but feel that this story could have used another 100 pages for character development. While Nessa’s class mates all have names and some get one characteristic, they all remain quite bland, like cardboard cutouts. Even Nessa herself doesn’t feel like a real fleshed-out person. So when bad things happen to these kids, I was shocked and felt they were tragic, but more in a bystander kind of way. Like when you hear someone had a terrible accident and you feel for them, but in a distant way. What I wanted was to care enough for the characters that I would really, really feel it when one of them dies. That didn’t happen.

As this was also one of the quickest reads and there wasn’t a single boring moment, I can recommend the book. Just don’t expect a lot of depth. But I will check out the sequel (which is also the last part) to see if I’ll finally get that character development and if a satisfying conclusion can be found in the war between the humans of Ireland and the Sidhe.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Murder at Magic School: Sarah Gailey – Magic for Liars

There were so many buzz words in this book’s description that I knew I would read it soon after publication. Magic school, twins where one got all the magic and the other – though non-magical – became a private investigator, teenagers who are murder suspects. I mean, it sounded like the perfect mash-up of tropes and genres. And guess what! It delivered everything I had hoped for plus a little more.

MAGIC FOR LIARS
by Sarah Gailey

Published by: Tor, 2019
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The library at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages was silent save for the whisper of the books in the Theoretical Magic section.

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.
But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

Ivy Gamble is a PI with a pretty cliché life. She drinks too much, she discovers cheating wives and husbands, insurance fraud, the works. She’s lonely and she’s a little bitter. And then she gets robbed and her arm slashed open with a knife. As if that wasn’t enough for one evening, a new client walks into her office – the headmaster at the magic school where Ivy’s twin sister teaches – and offers her a job. A murder investigation, to be precise. And thus starts the kick-ass plot of this fantastic book!

It may be because I’m still waiting for that damn Hogwarts letter to arrive (at the ripe age of 33, mind you) but I immediately empathised with Ivy. Twin sisters, where one has magical abilities, gets to go to Osthorn Academy for Young Mages, and the other is… well, ordinary, and has to stick around to watch her mother die of cancer and her father psychologically wither away after her passing. No wonder she’s bitter, no wonder she’s got issues. I mean, who wouldn’t? But right from the start, Sarah Gailey also shows us that deep down, Ivy is a good person at heart. Her job may not exactly make her happy, but she is willing to do good. She wants to solve this murder case, although the magical authorities decided it was an accident.

Once Ivy arrives at Osthorne Academy, checks out the murder scene (a teacher cut exactly in half), and gets an apartment to stay at during the investigation, the subplots start. At a school for young mages, you naturally get teenage drama. Just with a little extra magic. There is the Queen Bee of the mean girls, there’s the weirdo kid who thinks he’s the Chosen One, there’s a decidedly sexy and friendly male teacher who keeps flirting with Ivy, there’s the headmaster’s secretary who is way overqualified for her job, and there are secrets. Secrets within secrets within secrets.

This book is essentially a murder mystery and it does the whole investigation thing so well that I would have been happy if that had been all. But Sarah Gailey adds many layers of depth to her characters and the story itself. Not only did she keep me on my toes trying to guess who the murder was and what their motive could have been (I had about 1000 theories, all of them wrong), but she also confronts her main character with her estranged twin sister and that’s a whole new can of worms. The reasons for their estrangement, for the alternating Christmases with dad, are more than just “you got all the magic and I got nothing”. Figuring out how these two women, who were quite close as girls, grew so far apart, was really exciting and at times emotionally difficult to read.

Ivy was a brilliant character throughout. Not only is she great at her job – baiting the people she interviews with just the right verbal cues to tell her what she needs to know, understanding when someone’s lying, and so on – but she’s also got so much depth. At first, you may think of her only as the non-magical half of the twins, but the more you read, the more obvious it becomes that regardless of magical abilities, Ivy has some problems to deal with. Her loneliness, her non-existent love life, her drinking, her bitter cynisism… but none of these things make her unlikeable and that’s what I found so fascinating. I kept rooting for her, I wanted her to make friends, to fall in love, to be happy!

Then there are the students and the teachers of Osthorne. Gailey focuses on a select few but they each felt like proper, real people. Sometimes, it was hard to understand why they did the things they did, what secrets they were really hiding. Is it just teenage drama like who’s going to magic prom with whom, or is there something more beneath the surface (spoiler alert: there’s totally more beneath the surface). The characters are all beautifully drawn and every time Ivy interviewed or talked to one of them, I caught myself trying to catch them in a lie – as if they were actual people talking to me and I could see in their eyes whether they were telling the truth.

Even the romance sub plot was well done. Granted, I was suspicious of everyone in this book, so I kept silently urging Ivy to be careful, not to let any information slip, no matter how hot the guy may be. But murder investigation and potential danger aside, I really liked how the relationships were handled in this book. Both between Ivy and Rahul and between Ivy and her sister Tabitha. In fact, Ivy’s and Tabitha’s relationship may have been the best part.

I love when an author makes me guess and theorize until the very end of a book and Sarah Gailey totally pulled that off. As I mentioned, all my theories (some of them crazy enough that they might just have worked) turned out to be wrong in the end. The realization only hit me when Ivy figured out the solution herself. It’s nice to spend 300 pages incorrectly guessing and to truly be surprised in the end. The ending, including the solution to the murder case, was also incredibly good. Ivy has grown as a person, all questions are answered, and although one thing is left open, the book closes on a note of hope.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

Second opinions:

 

Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag!

This tag has been floating around the internet for about a week now and although nobody has tagged me (so far), I really want to join in the fun. I love the idea, I love the questions, and it’s always nice to check in on one’s own reading. After all, the year is already halfway over, so priorities should be made about what to read next.

❥ Reading Challenges 2019

Goodreads Reading Challenge: 45/60

I’m doing surprisingly well on my Goodreads challenge. I used to read 100 books a year with no problem, but the last two years, that seemed like an impossible task. But life changes, things quiet down, and I managed to find more reading time. I have no doubt I’m going to smash my Goodreads goal this year. Maybe I’ll even get close to 100 books. That would be amazing!

2019 Retellings Challenge: 9/10

Tracy’s Retellings Challenge still makes me as excited as I was at the beginning of the year. I have discovered wonderful new books, some I didn’t like so much, but the challenge definitely pushes me to finally pick up books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Or it makes me go out of my comfort zone and try something new. Either way, it has been very rewarding so far. My plan is to fill the bingo card until the end of the year. And if Tracy doesn’t create a follow-up challenge for next year, I’ll start the whole bingo card over again. Because it’s that much fun!

❥ Best Book You’ve Read so Far in 2019

This is so tough! I can’t go with just one, so here’s my favorite reads of the year so far with a link to my review in case you want to learn more about these amazeballs books.

❥ Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2019

Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising
I didn’t believe any author could possibly write a worthy and satisfying ending to such a great series but Leigh Bardugo did and I cried and it made me feel all the things and now she’s one of my favorite authors.

Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Warrior
I haven’t reviewed this book yet because there is so much to say about it that I don’t know where to start. It had all the magic and atmosphere from the first book but bigger, better, and more terrifying.

❥ New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

SO! MANY!!!

  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Ann Leckie – The Raven Tower
  • Chuck Wendig – Wanderers
  • Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  • Holly Black – The Wicked King
  • S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

❥ Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

  • Brandon Sanderson – Starsight
  • Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing
  • Maggie Stiefvater – Call Down the Hawk
  • T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones
  • Laura Ruby – Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  • Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth
  • Erin A. Craig – House of Salt and Sorrows
  • C. S. E. Cooney – Desdemona and the Deep

❥ Biggest disappointment

Without a doubt, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natahsa Ngan and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. I didn’t write a review for McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella because it made me so angry. There is very little plot (as usual) and there is only one interesting side character. The protagonist was the most self-pitying, hypocritical, whiny moron I have ever read about. The thing is, she would say I dislike her because she’s fat (but I really, really don’t care how big her thighs are) because that’s all she does. Suspect people of disliking her for being fat when everybody is actually very nice to her. But because she has a problem with her own size, she assumes everyone else does too. I just can’t root for a character who constantly puts herself in a victim role, imagining and inventing reasons why she’s supposedly treated unfairly when SHE OBVIOUSLY ISN’T AND NOBODY CARES IF SHE’S FAT. Whew. So yeah… I liked the beginning of that story but the protagonist made it unbearable. I’m surprised my eyes didn’t get stuck from how much I rolled them while reading this.

❥ Biggest surprise

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I had read two of Kowal’s fantasy books (Jane Austen with magic is the elevator pitch) and while they featured great ideas, they were both quite boring. That series lacked all excitement and the style is painfully technical. Like, the words are all in the correct place and I can see what the author is trying to do, but there’s no emotion there.
All the more surprise when Kowal’s alternate history/science fiction novel hooked me from the first page and didn’t let up until the end. Although this too is a quiet sort of book, especially for a sci fi novel, there was so much to love about it.

❥ Favourite new author (Debut or new to you)

  • S. A. Chakraborty
  • G. Willow Wilson
  • Sarah Gailey

Each of these women impressed me with only one of their novels. I had technically read G. Willow Wilson’s Miss Marvel before, but this was my first novel by her.
S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass was magical and lush and filled with complex politics.
G. Willow Wilson convinced me with her new novel The Bird King, which was full of atmosphere and mythology and very, very human characters.
And Sarah Gailey just threw the perfect debut novel out there with Magic for Liars. I loved the characters, I was completely in for the murder mystery, and I can’t wait to read more by her.

❥ Newest fictional crush

I’m a little too old for fictional crushes but if you made me pick one that I think my younger self would have loved, I’d go with Sean Kendrick from The Scorpio Races.

❥ Newest favourite character

Hm… I already mentioned Sean Kendrick, so I’ll go with a different one here. Although the book itself wasn’t perfect, A Curse so Dark and Lonely featured one of the best, proactive heroines I’ve encountered in YA in a long time. Harper Lacy may have cerebral palsy, but she doesn’t let that hold her back from saving kingdoms, breaking curses, or generally taking matters into her own hands. She doesn’t wait to be saved, she gets up and saves herself!

❥ Book that made you cry

The ending of the Grisha Trilogy was just too well done not to cry a little. But Stiefvater really wrecked me with The Scorpio Races. I was close to tears for the entire last third of the book. But you know when I really did start crying? On the very last page, reading that very last line! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an ending this perfect.

❥ Book that made you happy

It’s a little concerning how long I had to think about this. But while I’ve read a lot of depressing, dark, sad books this year, there were some that ended up making me glow with joy.

  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • L. M. Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables

Circe may have started out depressing, what with the titular Circe being unloved and unwanted most of the time. But as she grows as a character and as her world changes and new people enter into it, her story becomes more joyful. By the end, I caught myself smiling more and more often.
I also finally read Anne of Green Gables after watching the first episode of its adaptation on Netflix. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if Anne’s optimistic outlook and pure joy for life doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

❥ Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

I have bought some seriously pretty books this year!

  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

❥ Books you need to read by the end of the year

Well, there’s a lot of those. But because endless lists are no fun for anyone, I’m going to narrow it down to my top 15 books that I absolutely need to read before the year is over.

  • Joanne M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Call
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Garth Nix – Frogkisser
  • Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant

I’m not going to tag anyone specifically because I know many, many people have done it already. If you want to join in and do this tag, consider yourselves tagged and maybe leave me a link to your post. I love reading other people’s freak out tag answers and discovering even more books I have to read. 🙂

2019 Retellings Challenge – Second Quarter Update

Another quarter year has gone by and, like every year, I wonder how it happened so fast. Summer is here, I already went on holiday in lovely Tuscany, and of course I spent many days reading on the beach. The Hugo finalists have taken much of my reading time, so I haven’t read as many retellins as I would have liked, but I am still excited for this challenge (visit Tracy at cornerfolds for more info) and I plan to finish the entire bingo card this year.

What I’ve Read

For “Middle-Eastern Myth” on the bingo card, I finally read S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and I loved it. The setting and characters were wonderful, especially the complex political intricacies that Nahri and the readers have to learn about. I loved that there is so much more going on than first appears. Also, I have a super soft spot for Dara.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never was a group read and while I thought it was well done, I wasn’t exactly blown away. A very slow, character-focused book that retells Hook’s side of Peter Pan’s story, it takes a rapid turn at the end, with characters changing their entire personality in a matter of seconds, just for the sake of a dramatic ending. I liked parts of, but very much disliked others, so all things considered, it was okay, but not great.

I fully expected to love Circe by Madeline Miller and I was not disappointed. While it took me a while to warm to Circe herself, once she grew up a bit and I liked her, I was all aflame for her story. You meet many well-known characters from Greek myths and you especially get to see the women’s stories in a different light. Although quite different from The Song of Achilles, this was another excellent retelling of a Greek myth!

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales just fell into my hands one day at the book shop. This gorgeous looking little book is filled with poetry, short stories, and illustrations, all based on fairy tales. As with any collections, there were stories I liked better than others. But it bothered me how very obvious and on the nose the author was with her message. I fully support the message that you should love yourself the way you are, that women shouldn’t be princesses waiting to be saved by a strong prince, the message of empowerment and female friendship – it’s all there and it’s all things I totally love and want to see more of in fiction. But the execution felt like someone preaching with a raised finger and I really don’t enjoy being preached to. So this was also only a good read, not a great one.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
    June’s group read on Goodreads and a book I’ve been meaning to read forever! I’m a quarter of the way in and I absolutely love it.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
    I adore Oyeyemi’s style and my favorite book of hers was another retelling (Boy, Snow, Bird), so I’m very excited for this new one.
  • Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
    I hope this book wins the poll for July group read but if it doesn’t, I’ll probably read it anyway.
  • Ellen Datlow (ed.) – Mad Hatters and March Hares
    For the Wonderland bingo square, I might just go with this anthology. It features some of my favorite authors and short stories are usually quick reads. Even if there are a lot of them.

General Thoughts

By now, it’s become a little harder finding books to fit on the bingo card. For example, I already read my Middle-Eastern myth book (The City of Brass), so I’m lucky the group read, The Golem and the Jinni, also fits into the “award-winning” square.
This quarter, my reading has really been focused more on the Hugo Awards than this challenge. Once Hugo voting is over (by the end of July), I can put my attention back to this challenge and also finally reading some of the new releases from 2019 which I’ve been buying. I swear those books look at me sadly just to make me feel guilty that I haven’t picked them up yet!

But I’m still enjoying this challenge and the more I read, the more I appreciate Tracy’s reading prompts. Some of them are vague enough that you can read many things (like the “Brothers Grimm” prompt) and some are more specific and make you go hunt for books which you may otherwise not have read, especially if you’ve already read the most obvious choice (“a retelling set in space” –> Marissa Meyer’s Cinder). The Goodreads group reads also push books onto me which I either wouldn’t have read or which I’ve been putting off for way too long. So I’m still very happy with the challenge and with my progress. I expect to catch up much more quickly once I’m done with the Hugo Award nominated books and stories.

A Predictable Adventure: Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone

I steered well away from this book when it came out because it’s clearly one of those books that get hyped based on a (gorgeous!) cover and a cool description alone. Flocks of people swear it’s fantastic, simply because it looks great and the premise sounds nice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of book that usually disappoints. While I didn’t think this was completely disappointing, it definitely isn’t the book that the interwebs say it is but instead a mostly thrilling, albeit very predictable, adventure story in a cool setting.

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
by Tomi Adeyemi

Published by: Henry Holt, 2018
eBook: 544 pages
Series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Pick me.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Zélie lives in Orisha, a magical version of Nigeria, but her life there isn’t easy. As a diviner – a young person who should get magical abilities by the age of thirteen but hasn’t – she belongs to the lowest caste of people. Although not explicitly slaves, diviners are kept down by the monarchy and forced even further down by ever increasing taxes. If they fail to pay these taxes, they are sent to the stocks where hard labor eventually kills them. So… “not an easy life” is an understatement.
Amari is a princess, living in the palace, and her life naturally differs a lot from Zélies. Unlike her father, the king, Amari is sympathetic to the diviners because her maid is a diviner and also the only person she could call a friend. Clearly not made for princesshood, Amari struggles with the rules her mother imposes upon her. When a magical scroll appears in the palace that is supposed to give diviners their magic back, however, Amari takes action, defies her father, and runs away with the scroll.
Amari’s brother Inan may currently be Captain of the Royal Guard, but he will be king someday. His driving force is making his father proud and proving he has what it takes to rule the kingdom. Which, in his father’s eyes is mostly cruelty and a complete disregard for human life – if that life belongs to a diviner, at least…
When Amari and Zélie are thrown together by fate, and Zélie learns of the scroll’s powers, the two girls and Zélie’s brother Tzain set out on a quest. Which leads them to another quest to bring magic back to Orisha and restore power to the diviners so they can finally fight back against a monarchy that wants to keep them down at all costs.

There were many things I liked about this book, but there were also many things that I found grating. The constant repetitions made me roll my eyes a lot! Yes, we get it, Zélie’s mother was executed during the Raid (the time when magic was eradiated and the maji were killed, leaving their diviner children without magic). There’s really no need to mention it in every single chapter. The prologue does such a good job in describing the horrors Zélie felt when she saw her mother captured. Constantly mentioning it again and again takes away from that, and even blunted my feelings as a reader. Similarly, an event that happened between Amari and her brother Inan keeps coming up over and over again. Please, dear authors, trust your readers enough to believe that they can remember the horrible things that happened to your characters. We won’t forget even if we’re not reminded of it for a few chapters.

The thing that bothered me the most, though, was how flat the characters were. There are four protagonists, three of which get POV chapters. Zélie, Amari, and Inan are almost indistinguishable in voice. While Inan at least follows a different path and is out to destroy magic, the two girls could have been the same person in different circumstances. When I put the book down mid-chapter, I sometimes had to check whose POV I was in to figure it out. Good characters have their own voice and you don’t need chapter headings to know who you’re following at any given moment. I hope this improves in the author’s upcoming books.

One thing this book was praised for was the setting and the world building. Now, I’m all for setting fantasy stories in places other than medieval Europe, and I loved reading about characters with dark skin and – in the diviner’s case – white hair. Adeyemi’s descriptions are quite good and would make for an excellent movie. Both the ryders, huge animals like lions and panthers with a few extra horns, and the people are described in a way that I found stunning. The magic system is kind of based on the elements – there are maji who can control water, fire, etc. but also ones like Zélie whose powers have to do with the dead and their souls. Although it’s nothing new, I really liked how magic was used and the powers it gave its wielders. As for the world as such, I found the world building rather weak. That’s another thing that could get better in the upcoming sequels.

Finally, the plot was so very, very predictable. Not only were the romances obvious from the start, the bigger events weren’t even trying to be interesting. They run away with the scroll, get some information on how to get magic back, and then they just… go and try to do that, I guess. Thank goodness, things don’t go smoothly. Because even though you know what’s going to happen, the way battles and various adventures are described is just thrilling. It’s like watching an action movie where you know the heroes will make it out alive and well and nothing’s really at stake, but it’s fun to watch anyway. And, to Adeyemi’s credit, the ending – although kind of a stupid cliffhanger – does hold one little twist in store that made me curious for the rest of the series.

Now I’ve made it all sound way worse than it was but I’d actually recommend the book. You just have to know what to expect going in. You’re not going to get an N. K. Jemisin style exploration of race or a Brandon Sanderson-esque world building. You’ll simply get a fun adventure story with a nice (if predictable) romance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about book hypes and Goodreads ratings while reading this novel.  My conclusion (based on no research whatsoever but simply my own musings) is that a good cover has a huge impact. Certain buzz words, character traits, or settings add another layer to the hype – and by then it doesn’t really matter if the book is any good, because enough people are talking about it which makes others buy it which makes at least part of the people who bought it read it and then the whole thing starts over again with the sequel – which in the case of this series has an even more stunning cover to offer.
By this I don’t want to say that this is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a totally fine book that I read quickly and that entertained me from beginning to end. But I definitely don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking about it. The plot was predictable, the developing romance(s) could be guessed from very early on, and the characters were cardboard. But the adventure is thrilling, the magic is cool, and when I’m in the mood for a light Hollywood-type fun story that doesn’t require too much thinking, I’ll be back for the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Zombies vs. Ex-Slaves: Justina Ireland: Dread Nation

While this year’s Hugo shortlist in general is fantastic, the still pretty new YA category – the Lodestar Award, and Not-A-Hugo – is more of a mixed bag. Which is not a bad thing, to be honest. It makes ranking these six novels much easier.

DREAD NATION
by Justina Ireland

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 455 pages
Series: Dread Nation #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

I absolutely loved the voice of this book – which is the voice of its protagonist Jane McKeene – from the very first moment. She is sharp, she is no-nonsense, she lies a lot but at least she lets us readers in on her lies, she cares deeply about her family and friends, and she wants to do what is right. With that as a basis, very little could go wrong for me. And Dread Nation did in fact keep me entertained until the end, even though I felt the plot started meandering a bit at a certain point and the book left  too much open for the sequel(s).

The premise of this story  may sound cool, but if you’re tired of zombies (like me), you may have stayed away from Dread Nation so far (like me). In this alternate version of America, the War Between the States was interrupted by the dead rising. So people put down their arms against each other and instead decided to take up arms against the common threat. As for the slaves, they are technically freed, but not really because while they’re not considered anyone’s property anymore, they don’t have a lot choice in life. Jane is training to become an Attendant: a fighter of the dead to protect the living – but with manners. That’s the only “promotion” a black girl can hope for, to become a bodyguard for white people, rather than being sent to fight a whole army of zombies. So let’s just say, while slavery as it used to be no longer exists,  black people’s lives haven’t really much improved.

Jane simply wants to finish her studies and return home to her mother and aunt, but Things get in the way. Local families go missing, Jane’s friend and former lover Red Jack turns up again, and Jane gets stuck in stupidly dangerous situations with her most detested fellow student, Katherine. Jane resents  Katherine because she  is gorgeous and can pass for white. But these two girls are stuck together for quite an adventure. I loved their dynamic, I loved how they turned from frenemies into friends, especially how Jane started rethinking her prejudice against Katherine. Another big plus was the backstory we learn slowly through letters sent from Jane to her mother. For the most part of the book, this is a one-sided correspondence, but these brief interludes between chapters show more of Jane’s character than some of the chapters themselves. There is also more to Jane’s past than we get to see at first but I wasn’t a big fan of that plot twist and I won’t reveal it here because spoilers. Let’s just say that I loved Jane regardless of her past, because she is a badass with a good heart.

The world building really has potention. I didn’t find the premise hugely original (pairing zombies with whatever has been done too many times), but Justina Ireland really made something of it. We don’t just get to see how people defend themselves against the dead already risen, but scholars do experiments in order to figure out how to cure the plague, or how to vaccinate the living against it – I definitely got the sense that more is happening in this world than we got to see through Jane’s eyes. And that fleshed-out feeling, that sense that the world is bigger and just organic, is a sign of good writing to me.

The weakest part of this was definitely the plot. While it started really well and I could have read an entire novel set in the Miss Preson’s school, Jane sets out on an adventure. At one point, I thought it would take her many places, but then the friends kind of stay put in this one place. The villain was obivous, the conspiracy was also pretty easy to guess, and most situations that put the protagonists in danger felt like in a kid’s movie, where you just know everyone will be fine in the end. I’m not saying I was right about this but while reading, I definitely wasn’t worried about Jane, Katherine, or Red Jack.

I probably won’t jump on the sequel the moment it comes out, but I can definitely see myself reading more of Justina Ireland’s books. Especially if they’re told by Jane McKeene.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Quite good