Twisted and magical: Leigh Bardugo – The Language of Thorns

I didn’t really like Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, but I absolutely loved the duology set in the same world (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), so I decided to give the Grishaverse another go. The second book in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, Siege and Storm, was much better and made me finally get why there is such a large fandom for these books. Now that the Grisha bug has got me, I needed to delve into that beautiful book of twisted fairy tales set in the Grishaverse – and it was, if possible, even better than the main stories.

THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Orion Children’s Books, 2017
Hardcover: 281 pages
Short Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

This collection of fairy tales set in the Grisha universe contains six stories, some of which are set in Ravka, some of which in other parts of the Grisha world. Most of them are recognisable as well-known fairy tales from our worlds, but because each tale has such a distinct flavor, I’m going to talk about every one of them a little. I didn’t read them in order because I discovered “The Witch of Duva” before this collection came out (and loved it!) and you can pretty much read these tales in whichever order you like. They are not connected, other than by the fact that they’re all set in the Grisha world.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

I loved how much like a fairy tale this felt! It is about a family with two daughters, one pretty and talented, the other… not so much. Because the second daughter, Ayama, is not much to look at and the family want to showcase their beautiful daughter, they make Ayama into a scullery maid who sleeps in the ashes in front of the fireplace (ring a fairy tale bell yet?).
It is also the story of  a king and queen with two sons, one handsome and lovely, the other in the shape of a wolf with terrifying horns. Because the king is so ashamed of this second son, he has a labyrinth built under his castle and imprisons the son there.

When the kingdom, currently at war, suffers damage to their fields and livestock – said to be done by the beast that escaped its labyrinth under the castle – the king asks for a brave soul to delve into the wild forest and slay the beast. Or at least convince it to leave the people and their livelihood alone. After little ceremony, Ayama is sent on this journey and – in a lovely twist – has to save her hide from the beast by telling it stories. I won’t say more about the plot at this point, but the writing is just exquisite. It does read like a fairy tale, but one where the characters aren’t cardboard. The imagery is gorgeous, the ending was as perfect as can be. This is an excellent opening story for the collection and makes you want to read the whole thing in one sitting (which is what I did).

The Too-Clever Fox

This title was actually mentioned in the Shadow and Bone trilogy (in the second book, when Alina meets Sturmhond), so I was eager to find out what the fairy tale had to do with a pirate… sorry, privateer. It is almost a fable, the story of a trickster animal, too clever for his own good. It tells of how Koja, the fox, escapes a series of dire situations through cleverness and wit. But he has to admit, by the end, that even he can be outsmarted.

The Witch of Duva

This is the Grisha version of Hansel and Gretel and the story works so well because as readers, we all go in with a set of expectations. We know Hansel and Gretel, we know certain things that have to happen, we know how the story ends. Now while you may expect Bardugo to put a spin on things and give you an alternate ending, I bet you won’t guess the twist at the end! It’s not only a well-written story, it’s a well-written story with an excellent ending that makes you want to re-read it right away.

Little Knife

This was my least favorite story in the collection, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just not as good as the competition. It’s about a girl so beautiful that everyone – and I mean everyone! – wants to marry her. When her father sees his chance for riches, he sets his daughter’s suitors three impossible tasks, promising whoever manages them, her hand in marriage. There is a prince vying for her favor but there is also a Grisha who seeks the river’s help in accomplishing these tasks. Again, there is a nice twist at the end that I really loved, but the rest of the story fell rather flat in comparison and the characters never get to be more than what you’d get in a fairy tale.

The Soldier Prince

A story based on The Nutcracker and set in Kerch! I have loved The Nutcracker since I was a little girl so I immediately loved where the story was going. It begins with Droesser, a clockmaker, a tinkerer, a man who seemingly brings mechanical things to life. He seeks the favor of a young girl named Clara and gifts her a nutcracker to tell her secrets to.

But the story soon goes in different directions. At first I thought it was about Droesser, then about the dreamy girl Clara, who wishes nothing more than to escape to fantasy worlds with her beloved nutcracker. But it is actually about the nutcracker himself. That’s all I’m willing to say about the plot. The ending manages to be wonderful without a shocking twist, this time, and while it’s one of the longer tales in this collection, it is also a beautifully satisfying one.

When Water Sang Fire

This too is based on a real world fairy tale and when I tell you that the protagonists are mermaids, you’ll know which one. Ulla is different than the others. Where they are beautiful, she is grey and strange. All she has is her amazing voice and her gift for composing and singing music, which is how the sildroher use magic. Through this skill, she makes one friend, the beautiful red-haired Signy and in combining their voices, they catch the eye of the youngest prince, Roffe.

Only the most highly valued sildroher get to accompany the royal family when they go on land to frolick with the humans. They cut their tails to create legs, they dance and dine with humans, they bring gifts and keep the diplomacy between the two species. Ulla and Signy get to go along as Roffe’s friends and, let’s just say, things get a little out of hand. I honestly thought I knew where the story was going, and then it went a completely different way, only making sense again at the end. And I loved every page of it.

The collection

I do have to say a few more things about the collection as a whole and about the book as an object because it is GORGEOUS. Every single page is illustrated, starting with only a small illustration in a corner, which then grows as you turn the pages, adding a little bit every time. Each story also has a beautiful piece of art at the end (some of them spoilery, so beware!) and the font is different colors!!! I’ve added a taste of them in my review but really, you have to see them in person to understand just how beautiful they are. This is an excellent book to gift to someone, especially if they like fairy tales or just pretty books. It will give anyone a taste for more Leigh Bardugo fiction and, if you’re like me, it will make you want to devour all the Grisha books you can find.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

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Tough yet rewarding: Robin McKinley – Deerskin

When you like fairy tales and their retellings as much as I do, there are some books where you know going in they’re not going to be fun. No matter how well written, no matter how skilled an author is at creating memorable characters, the fairy tale plot simply makes it clear that there will be at least certain scenes that will be difficult to read. Donkeyskin is such a fairy tale and I think it’s no wonder there are so few retellings of it.

DEERSKIN
by Robin McKinley

Published by: Open Road Media, 1993
Ebook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side.

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.
But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”
The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!
On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.
Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.
Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Her nursemaid has told her the story of how her father won her mother many times and it is a truth well fixed in Lissar’s mind as well as the entire kingdom that her mother is simply the most beautiful creature they ever beheld. When she dies, her father the king goes mad with grief and, after a few years, decides to marry again. As Lissar has grown into a young woman, she looks more and more like her mother so – honoring his dying wife’s last wish to only marry another woman if she is as beautiful as herself – the king decides to take Lissar, his own daughter, as his new queen. Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.

The terror of that fairy tale is hard to describe and Robin McKinley has taken on quite a task in retelling it. Through Lissar’s eyes, the reader experiences just what it might feel like to be this fairy tale heroine, to be chosen by your own father as his new bride. I cannot begin to explain what I felt when the king made this announcement, when he decided to marry his own daughter and share her bed – it was truly the worst part of this book to read and it’s the reason I will never re-read it (although it was an amazing book).

Lissar is a quiet heroine, one without friends except her beloved dog Ash, whom she takes with her when she manages to flee the palace into the cold winter world. Physically and emotionally broken, Lissar meets a sorceress who grants her the gift of time to heal as well as a change in appearance and a magical dress made of deerskin. The following passages read like a dream (or a nightmare) with Lissar somehow surviving a winter alone with her dog in a hut in the woods. Her healing happens slowly and only by pushing away any memories of what happened to her, but after some time, she manages to get a job at the court of another kingdom. She is supposed to try and keep a litter of dogs alive whose mother has died. Nobody believes she can manage but Lissar throws herself into this task as if it were the only thing keeping her alive.

Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself, caring for dogs, even befriending the prince who has as much love for his dogs as Lissar does. But sooner or later, Lissar’s past catches up with her and she has to confront her suppressed memories, has to remember who she is and what has come to pass before her life in the royal kennels.

This is an incredibly difficult book to read because of what it puts Lissar through. But at the same time, it is beautifully written, very slow moving but never boring, and ultimately rewarding. Lissar’s bond with Ash as well as the litter of dogs that everyone thought doomed to die, was just wonderful. The friendship that slowly grows between her and the Prince felt real and believable – there is no insta-romance simply because he’s a prince and, hey, we’re in a fairy tale, so naturally the princess in hiding and the prince must end up together. There is a scene at the very end in which Lissar and Prince Ossin confront the truth, that definitely doesn’t fit the mould of happily-ever-after but is so beautiful and touching because it doesn’t hide the past. Theirs feels like a relationship built on trust and love and acceptance.

I made it sound like there is almost no plot in this book and while it isn’t your action-packed adventure novel, there are some very exciting chapters. Lissar and Ash’s life in the woods come with the threat of wildlife, Lissar’s life the palace bringts its own threats. It was also great watching Lissar turn from a young, quiet girl in a white dress into an almost revered woman called Moonwoman, where before she was simply called Deerskin. The magic McKinley added to this story is exactly as it should be – it has no apparent rules, you don’t know where it comes from or even if it’s real but it gives the story a mythical quality that pushed all my happy-buttons.

Again, this book is not for everyone, and it is definitely not fun! But I found it a powerful, beautifully executed fairy tale retelling that I heartily recommend. Few authors would manage to tell such a tale without gratuitous descriptions of the violence or without cheap “solutions” for Lissar’s pain. Robin McKinley managed just that – she wrote a gorgeous tale of pain and healing, of friendship and love, and especially of a bond between a girl and her dog that touched me right to the bone.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher has worked her way into my readerly heart really fast with no intention of leaving again. No matter what story of hers I pick up, they all give me some hours of enjoyment and when I finish them, I am wrapped in a blanket of happiness. Kingfisher’s fairy tale retellings have become something of a go to comfort read for me.

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2015
Paperback: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.
But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?
Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most retold tales out there, but I think it is also one of the most difficult ones to make both interesting and not creepy. Fairy tales are, by their nature, simple stories with characters who don’t have much personality, if any – another difficulty in retelling them. But not for T. Kingfisher, who can do both really dark (see The Seventh Bride, her Bluebeard retelling) and humerous. Bryony and Roses definitely has its dark moments and it doesn’t end the way a Disney movie would either, but all things considered, it is a rather fun book to read and made me chuckle quite a lot.

Bryony is a gardener. She and her sisters live alone and have to make ends meet somehow. It is because of her passion for plants and gardens that Bryony and her horse almost freeze to death, only to stumble upon a – you guessed it – enchanted castle. The corner stones of the fairy tale are all there. The castle magically provides food and clothing, although unlike any other retelling I’ve read before, it seems to have a mind of its own as well. The castle definitely has a taste in clothing and décor because while it’s nice that a place cleans itself up after you mess it up, that doesn’t mean everything has to be cleaned into an explosion of pink. 🙂

Bryony also encounters the beast who is, much to my delight, a really nice beast and not a creepy dude keeping a young girl prisoner in his home. I mean, sure, Bryony kind of has to stay at the castle but the beast is both a nice conversation partner and even tries to help her with setting up a little garden of her own. In this retelling, their friendship and, later, romance, is believable because they are just two people (well one human, one beast) who get along really well and find shared interests.

But as many books, this one stands or falls with its protagonist. Bryony is resourceful and clever and easy to love. Not only is her love for plants infectious, she also figures out very soon that something is not right in the castle, that there must be some kind of curse, and she does all she can to figure it out. No wallowing in self-pity, no missing obivous hints. It’s so refreshing to read about a girl who has both a heart and a brain!

I won’t say much about the conclusion because Kingfisher came up with a wholly original idea as to why the castle and the beast are cursed and what that curse entails. The ending was, just like the rest of the book, lovely. And because I’m telling you so little about it, let me mention Bryony’s sister, who only shows up for a tiny little part but totally stuck in my mind. The fact that she, too, has her own mind and a distinct personality made her immediately loveable, in a matter of pages. It is the mark of a great author to bring characters to life so easily and I’m really sad that I have now read all of Kingfisher’s fairy tale novels.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Terrifying and beautiful: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races

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

THE SCORPIO RACES
by Maggie Stiefvater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

My Favorite Books of 2018

It’s been very quiet around here. Life required almost all my attention most of this year so I didn’t have much time for blogging. What time I could snatch away from work, I used for reading or spending with loved ones. BUT I did read, I even reached my Goodreads challenge goal, and I discovered some amazing books. And because it’s that time of the year, I want to share them with you.

Female authors: 66,1%
Male authors: 33,9%

My favorite books published in 2018

Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I love everything Cat Valente writes but I especially enjoy when she tries something new. Space Opera, while still clearly penned by Valente, is so damn funny! It’s like that Rick and Morty episode where Earth has to prove it’s worthy of staying alive by winning a music contest. But with aliens that come out of Valente’s incredibly creative brain, a washed-out rock star as a protagonist, and the most hilarious “Hey, I’m an alien and yes we exist and also you better find a great musician to compete in intergalactic Eurovision” speech you could ever imagine. I laughed until I cried, it’s that funny. But the book also has a lot of heart and will simply leave you a happier person after reading it.

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted but it does count among the best books published this year that I read. I felt Novik didn’t do a great job distinguishing the voices of her characters and I don’t see why so many needed to have POV chapters in the first place. But the three protagonists all grew rather dear to me, in their own way, and I adored the conclusion to the story. It may start out as a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” but it takes pretty epic turns and grows into something much bigger. Again, I much preferred Uprooted, but Novik’s fairy tale retellings, even when they’re not her best, are still better than most others out there.

Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I haven’t loved everything by Sanderson so far. What I’ve loved I adore, but there are some books that I just didn’t feel (Steelheart, White Sand, I’m looking at you). Skyward however, is one of his books that you want to eat up in one sleepless night, following Spensa pursue her dream of becoming a pilot like her father. It does everything a good YA science fiction novel should do. A fast moving plot, secrets within secrets (because it’s Sanderson, let’s not pretend there are no seriously surprising plot twists on the way), and have I mentioned the talking space ship?

R.F. Kuang – The Poppy War

I’m still reading this (I’m about one third through) but it is already so damn good that I just know it will end up on this list anyway! Rin is such a compelling character and the world is a pleasure to explore. I have some idea of where the story is going, but mostly, I’m clueless about the bigger picture and I love it. The setting is something you don’t often see in fantasy and I’m surprised that martial arts can be fun reading about instead of watching. But it totally works and as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll go back to reading the book.

 

My favorite books published earlier but read in 2018

Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The follow-up to my favorite book of 2017 (The Bear and the Nightingale) had a tough job keeping up with its predecessor. But Katherine Arden didn’t let up but delivered a more than worthy second instalment in ther Winternight Trilogy. Vasya’s journey continues and takes her to the big city. Her relationship with the mythical beings she can see grows, the world suddenly seems bigger, politics are more and more important. Where the first book happened mostly in Vasya’s village, this one opens up. With that new setting come new wonders to discover but also new threats and dangers. I loved this almost as much as the first book and I already pre-ordered the final instalment, due in January!

 

Ursula Vernon – Digger

This massive graphic novel took me a long time to get through. My hardback edition is… let’s set rather unwieldy. At almost 900 pages, it’s not the kind of book you read on a commute. But Digger crawled into my heart nonetheless and now I don’t know what to do with myself, comics-wise. It’s the story of a wombat who digs herself a tunnel that leads to unexpected places. On her quest to find the way back home, she meets hyenas, monks, a spirit child thing (it’s adorable!) and gets mixed up in the politics of a god that is also a statue. Plus, there are prophetic snails, lots of wombat jokes and Ursula Vernon’s trademark practical characters. I just love how pragmatic Digger is and how she tackles problems, makes friends, and is just so lovable all the time. The ending made me cry on several occasions because these characters grew so dear to me and I didn’t want to let go. I do want more Ursula Vernon books however.

T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Here’s the second Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) book to make this list because she is just that awesome. This is her retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” and it is everything I had hoped for. Bryony – a practical young gardner – stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, figures out pretty quickly there’s something wrong, and does her best to break the curse. The two protagonists develop a bond that is believable and the solution was quite original, nothing I’ve read in a Beauty and the Beast retelling before. I also have to mention Bryony’s sister – who only appears very shortly but is one of those characters I wish I could meet and have a long chat with. And then hug.

Patricia A. McKillip – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

This year, I took the time to catch up on some older SFF because usually, new releases get all the attention and I miss out on all the great stuff that’s been there for a few decades. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld blew me away. It’s a quiet but powerful story about Sybel and the mythological beasts who live with her, isolated on her mountain. When a human child is thrust upon her, everything changes. She learns to love the child, but him being the son of one of the kings  vying  for power, it is clear that young Tamlorn will be pulled into a war. This book is powerful not so much because of its surface plot but because of what isn’t said. The way her animals react, the way Sybel bases her decisions on things that happen to her, the way the characters’ emotions toward each other change and grow over time – it was a delightful read and, as my first McKillip book, makes me want to read much more by her.

Robin McKinley – Deerskin

I read a lot of fairy tale retellings this year because in stressful times, we go back to what is most comforting. The previous McKinley book I’d read didn’t exactly convince me (maybe it was because I’d seen the Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast too many times or because I read it during a bad time, I don’t know), but I gave her a second chance and – boom – she made it straight into my favorite books of the year.
Deerskin is a tough book to read. If you know the fairy tale it’s based on, “Donkeyskin”, then you know that bad things happen to the protagonist early on. McKinley managed to get through those parts without ever being gratuitous but that didn’t make them any less horrifying to read. But the bulk of this book is a journey of healing for protagonist Deerskin. The bond between her and her dog was beautiful to read, and way more intense than the slowly growing romance between her and the prince. As hard as the reading experience was, I loved everything about this. The way Deerskin has to fight hard every day to keep living, the way magic was inserted into the story, the way it ended. This is why I give authors second chances – I would not want to have missed out on this gem of a retelling.

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

I don’t know why I didn’t read more LeGuin sooner. Maybe because, much like with McKinley, I didn’t totally love Earthsee and therefore kind of avoided other LeGuin books. What a mistake!
I didn’t really know what to expect of this book and simply dove in without much research. And again I was rewarded. What impresses me most is how much substance LeGuin managed to put into a book that is relatively short. World-building and politics happen almost by themselves without much description or info dumping. The focus lies on the characters (which is probably why I loved it so much), but you still get such a vivid feeling of the surroundings, the political setup, the wider world that’s out there. I kind of expected difficult prose and a slow read, but I raced thorugh this in a few days because it was so very compelling.

My favorite books that were everyone’s favorites last year

There’s a reason I love SFF book awards. They draw my attention to books I may have missed or that didn’t catch my eye with their covers and descriptions but may well be worth a read. I spend a good part of this year catching up on last year’s top books, award nominees, and other bloggers’ favorites.  A very rewarding undertaking.

Sam J. Miller – The Art of Starving

What a strange and yet utterly wonderful book. I read it on the beach in Greece but my mind was totally with Matt and his starving-induced superpowers. This book does not (!) glorify eating disorders – quite the opposite. I loved Matt’s voice, the way he is clearly lost in his own skin but so sure that has all the solutions. I don’t want to give too much away, but I enjoyed every page.

Sarah Rees Brennan – In Other Lands

Oh my god, what a delight. This is Fairyland as I’ve never seen it before – through the eyes of Elliot, a young boy with no interest in becoming a Fairyland warrior whatsoever. He is sarcastic, always gets himself in the most trouble he possibly can, and somehow still keeps his two friends (at times frenemies) throughout his time in magic school. Again, this book focuses on its characters, the fantasy setting is just sprinkles on top, although Elliot does have a weird obsession with mermaids. Although he is infuriatingly dumb at times, I loved Elliot so very much. Sometimes you want to take him by the shoulders and shake sense into him, but his flaws make him all the more lovable. I also love that this is a standalone novel that you can read, enjoy, and get the full story without commiting to another 10000 pages.

Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

It came as no surprise to me that I loved the first instalment in The Book of Dust, featuring a baby Lyra and Malcolm Polstead as protagonist. Pullman just has a way with words that makes you fall into a story. The characters are charming, the plot intriguing, the connection to the original His Dark Materials trilogy is there, but not so overwhelmingly that it takes away from Malcolm’s own story. This was another feelgood book and  I can’t wait for the next in the series.

Theodora Goss – The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Everybody raved about this book last year and now I see why. I have been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing since reading In the Forest of Forgetting but this being her first novel, I didn’t know what to expect. Rest assured, Goss found a cast of characters with charming and distinct voices (voices that frequently interrupt the story to comment on it) and she managed to write a mash-up of classic SF stories in which women take the lead. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Frankenstein’s second creation, a woman created by Doctor Moreau…. they all come together here to form a sort of found family and solve a series of mysterious murders. Okay, Sherlock Holmes helps a little.
Although it is completely different, I felt similarly happy while reading this as when I read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It has that feeling of belonging despite being an outsider. I loved it.

What I still Want to read from 2018

There are – as there are every year – several books published in 2018 that I didn’t get to but really want to read soon. Here are the ones at the top of my list:

  • Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand
    Everybody is raving about is, including people whose opinion I trust, so it needs to go on my TBR asap.
  • Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire
    Everything about this screams “read me”. The cover, the synopsis, the fact that I got a gorgeous hardcover copy here at home.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read McLemore for a while (I have like five of her books here, all unread) but this is the one that screams the loudest to be read soon. Plus, it’s a fairy tale retelling.
  • Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
    This is a book I would never pick up normally but the way the entire internet is going crazy for it makes me want to try it for myself. Covers like this (urban fantasy with weapon wielding girls) usually put me off. But the synopsis sounds good and I’m pretty sure that everybody whose reviews I read can’t be wrong.
  • Mishell Baker – Impostor Syndrome
    I loved the first two books in this series and I need to finish it soon. Although no more new books with Millie will make me very sad.
  • Theodora Goss – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
    Obviously.

That’s it for my 2018 reading year. I hope you had a good one as well and may we all have an excellent reading year 2019!

Excellent but kind of unfinished: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass

I can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, especially if it comes wrapped in a cover like this! And at 130 pages, this promised to be a quick read which is good to keep motivation for reading challenges up.

WINTERGLASS
by Benjanun Sridunagkaew

Published by: Apex Book Company, 2017
eBook: 130 pages
Standalone (?)
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: On the night of Nuawa’s execution, she saw the Winter Queen for the first time.

Winterglass is a sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

This book was both a bit of a rush and a pleasure cruise. In the prologue alone, so many details are introduced that don’t make sense yet. The protagonist, Nuawa, just a little girl, is sent into an execution device called a ghost-kiln. But her mother – who is to be executed with her – gives her something to swallow, something sharp and icy, and Nuawa survives.

Nothing much makes sense at first, but throughout the story of (now grown-up) Nuawa, readers get to explore this strange science-fantasy world, in which human souls are used to generate power, where the Winter Queen has conquered formerly lush and warm places and turned them to ice, where nobody seems powerful enough to defeat her. And of course that is Nuawa’s goal. To kill the Winter Queen, who is not only responsible for turning her home into a cold place but for killing her mother as well. But Nuawa is the embodiment of patience. Many assassin’s have failed but Nuawa doesn’t plan to be one of them.

I found this a strange reading experience because it was at once a slow read, focused on character development, and at the same time things happend very quickly, rushing you through the plot to the end – which didn’t really feel like the end of the story, merely a first chapter of something bigger.

But let’s start with the story’s strong points. I loved the world building, maybe even because the reader gets thrown into it and we have to figure things out for ourselves. For Nuawa, having grown up in it, her world is self-explanatory. For us, there are many strange things and customs to discover. It’s a beautifully diverse world, filled with weird little details that enrich the story greatly. In a fight, Nuawa can slice through her oponent’s shadow, inflicting pain (and even death) on them. Sexuality seems very fluid, as well as gender identity – there is a variety of pronouns used for different characters. There are methods, appearing magical but presented as a sort of science, to protect your body against harm, and I found this all highly original and interesting. So discovering this world definitely whetted my appetite for more.

My favorite part, by far, were the characters. Although Nuawa is not exactly someone who warms the heart, her determination and strength mader her into an intriguing protagonist. She pursues her goal at any cost – there was one particularly harrowing scene which demonstrates just how far she will go. It sent shivers down my spain and made me question if I should even like Nuawa. Equally interesting was General Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s best soldier and lover. I could have read a whole book just about Lussadh!
When Nuawa and Lussadh meet, there is an instant spark – which is probably due to them both having one of the Queen’s mirror shards in them, but I like to believe that there’s also a bit of regular old attraction mixed into it. Either way, reading about these two not so different characters was the absolute best.

The story itself is pretty straight forward. Nuawa enters a tournament and wants to battle her way to the top, to become one of the Winter Queen’s soldiers. She hopes that getting close to the Queen, she will get a chance at killing her, ending her country’s enslavement to winter once and for all. And battle, she does! I will not go into detail here, but I found the fight scenes pretty awesome, especially because they show the science-fantasy quality of the book so well.

If you’ve read anything by Sriduangkaew, you know that she’s got a firm grip on language and knows how to use it to great effect. She describes scents and sounds so beautifully to make you feel like you’re there, at the place she’s talking about, standing just next to the protagonist. You can just fall into the story, which is no easy feat when the story is so short. To create a full world on such a little amount of pages is something few authors can do.

But the ending… if you can call it an ending. I do not know, at this point, if this novella is meant as the beginning of a trilogy or series but I sincerely hope so. There is a story arc here, without a cliffhanger. But the story is far from finished. Both Nuawa and Lussadh’s relationship  as well as Nuawa’s quest (and it is a quest!) simply stop at the end of this book, without even a hint of being resolved. My rating of this book depends a lot on whether it is the first part of a series or meant as a standalone. Reading this was pure pleasure but I just want more! If there is more, you can go ahead and add a full point to my rating.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Second opinions:

The fairy tale continues: Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The first complete book I read in 2018 (I did finish the last few chapters of Hogfather this year, but that doesn’t count) lets me begin this year with hope. Not that I expected anything less from Katherine Arden after the gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale but middle books in a trilogy are usually a challenge for authors. How to keep the plot moving and characters developing without going too far, how to save enough story for the final instalment without making the second part boring? Well, Arden definitely has an answer to those questions and the answer is this book.

THE GIRL IN THE TOWER
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 363 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Girl in the Tower opens not long after The Bear and the Nightingale ends, although it immediately shows the readers more of the world and more of its characters. The attentive reader will remember that some of Vasya’s siblings were sent away or left their forest home to pursue other ways. Olga has become a princess and a mother, Sasha is a man of god. And Vasya… well, Vasya chose adventure over a confined life in a convent or in some minor lord’s bed. With her fantastic horse Solovey, she rides out into the world, without much of a plan but with fierce determination not to be caged.

The changing viewpoints of this book give a good picture of the state of affairs in Rus’ – taxes waiting to be collected, a looming war, bandits who leave villages burned down and steal Russian girls. As Vasya finds it makes things much, much simpler, she is dressed like a man with her long hair hidden away as she stumbles into all of this. As Vasilii Petrovich, she meets her siblings again and even gains favor with the Prince of Moscow. But navigating court is no easy feat even when you’re not trying to disguise your gender. Although it’s an old trope, it is one I can never get enough of. After all, who doesn’t love a good girl-disguised-as-a-boy story?

But although the trope has been used many times by many authors, in this particular setting, it becomes so much more obvious why Vasya would choose to do this. Okay, it kind of just happens because she’s practical and doesn’t like what the world holds in store for women, but once she arrives in Moscow, the differences between men and women are so stark that I wonder why not more women would pretend to be men, if only to have the simple freedom of stepping outside a building when they wished to see the sky.

In Moscow, Vasya also meets her niece, Marya, for the first time, and the connection between the two made me so very happy, despite all the danger that constantly surrounds them. As family reunions go, this was a bittersweet one but the love these siblings have for each other was tangible on every page. Never mind the secrets between them, the difference in  how they choose to live their lives (or the way they have to live the lives chosen for them, in Olga’s case), there is a true sense of family there, and the way Marya and Vasya strike up a friendship out of the blue made that all the clearer.

Morozko makes a few appearences as well, to my utter delight. I admit I have been hoping for a romantic development here and I am not ashamed of my fangirling! He still holds a lot of secrets that Vasya, and us poor readers, don’t quite know yet, but there are glimpses of humanity in this immortal being, as well as hints to the past and where Vasya’s family came from. Not all questions are answered – this is only book 2, after all – but there were enough hints for me to have closed to book satisfied. Morozko isn’t the only mythological creature in this book. Rest assured, there are domovoi and even more famous personalities to be met.

While this book was much more action-packed than the first, with a faster pace, more focus on politics and social structures, I still loved every bit of it. Arden’s style is as beautiful as ever and her characters as multi-faceted. I particularly enjoyed any description of Vasya riding or dealing with horses and literally any interaction between her and Morozko. Even without stating a thing outright, you can still read the characters’ emotions between the lines, in the description of their body language, a twitch or a sigh. It was just pure joy to read!

Katherine Arden has published her two novels at remarkable pace (two in one year!) and the next one is supposed to be published in August of this year. That’s really fast, especially considering the quality of these books. Whether the publication date is fixed or gets pushed back a litte, I have already pre-ordered my copy of The Winter of the Witch and am waiting more than eagerly to find out how this gorgeous story concludes.

MY RATING: 8,5/10

Second opinions:

My Top 7 Books of 2017

It’s a sort of unwritten custom to post a best of the year list whenever a new year arrives and I think it’s a good way of getting this blog back on its feet. After surviving my roughest year yet with lots of personal challenges, I believe I’m slowly getting ready to turn a new page. I wouldn’t have been able to keep going without my wonderful friends and family whose support means so incredibly much to me. Life goes on, even when a loved one leaves us, and all we can do is fill our days with things and people that make us happy. I’m trying to make my grandmother proud every day, even if she’s not here to see it. Books and reading have always been a source of joy for me and I had no greater cheerleader in my obsession than my grandmother. So here’s to a new great year of reading. Let me welcome it with my favorite books from last year:

My Favorite Books Published in 2017

Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

Without a doubt, my favorite book of last year (both published last year and older), this Russian-inspired fairy tale had so much atmosphere and told such a riveting story that it catapulted Katherine Arden onto my top author shelf immediately. Vasya is a fantastic heroine who – despite the slow loss of old beliefs – holds on to the old gods and tries to save her home, all by herself. The snowy landscape, the threat of true winter, the politics and magic and mythology all go so perfectly well together to make this book a perfect read for a cold day by a chimney (if you have one) or in front of a nice steaming cup of tea (if you don’t).

Martha Wells – All Systems Red

A rogue robot with a preference for soap operas doesn’t go on a killing spree – although they could – but instead helps the people they’re meant to protect survive a plot on an unexplored planet. The narration was just too damn good to not read this in one sitting! Murderbot is amazing and has so much personality that the edges between human and artificial intelligence get blurred. I can’t wait to read the sequel(s).

Mishell Baker – Phantom Pains

The follow-up to Borderline was as amazing – if not more – than Baker’s debut novel. Millie has to deal with the consequences of the events in Borderline and although a lot of terrible things happen once more, this is still one of those uplifting, feel-good series that I can’t quite explain. Millie still isn’t a perfect heroine and maybe that’s what makes her so wonderfully likable. In addition to telling another exciting story, this novel opens the world a bit and expands on what we learned in Borderline. It also made my mouth water for the third book which will come out in 2018.

Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

Cat Valente does wonderful things with words! While I prefer her when she’s playing with fairy tales and mythology, this short novel shows that she can do comic book style narration as well. Giving the women of famous comic book heroes a voice – after their death, that is – is not only a great idea, but it also shows just how carelessly some comic books create and kill/rape/torture their female characters, simply to give the (male) hero something to do or someone to avenge. Valente shows that there’s more to these girls than existance as a tired old trope.

My Favorite Books Published Before 2017

Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance

So yeah, everybody who’s been raving about The Stormlight Archive for the last years, was absolutely right. It is the most epic of epic fantasies with characters you can actually care about and a world so large and so filled with history and mythology that it probably will take those 10 volumes to explore it all. While the first book was very much an introduction into this crazy world (although it didn’t feel like it at the time), this one digs a little deeper, grants the characters more powers (both magical and personality-wise), and shows a bit more of what the world holds in store for us. I can’t get over how much I love Kaladin, and his interactions with Shallan were my favorite bits of the book, although that probably makes me sound like a huge fangirl.
The only reason I haven’t read Oathbringer yet is that I’m waiting for Graphic Audio to do the audio version of it. The actors doing the character’s voices, to me, have completely become those characters and I hope I can experience the entire series in this format.

Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

Oh Cat, is there anything you can’t turn into a gorgeous story? Seriously, a sexually transmitted city is the premise for this gorgeous tale, and although there isn’t much plot at first, not a single chapter is boring. Because Valente plays so much with imagery and symbolism, even chapters where nothing happens are so full of meaning that reading feels more like devouring a fantastic meal. This is a book that rivets the senses and – Valente’s weakness, in my opinion – even delivers a beautiful ending that left me happy and satisfied.

Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

This was my surprise of the year. I never warmed to Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series because the old-man-in-a-young-body falling in love with a teenage girl trope crept me the hell out. But this collection of three novellas absolutely blew me away. Taylor invents her own mythologies and plays with more well-known legends and tells beautiful stories within them. Whether you’d like to read a modern take on Goblin Market or read about how to deal with a devil, each story is beautifully told and has gorgeous illustrations. I am beyond happy to have a hardback copy of this on my shelf. Plus, this book convinced me to give Taylor’s other books another try.

I know there are a ton of books from last year that I didn’t get to and I’m trying to catch up now. Hugo nominating season will arrive soon and I want to make informed decisions about the books that are eligible. Here’s a few from the top of my list:

  • Mur Lafferty – Six Wakes
  • Yoon Ha Lee – Raven Stratagem
  • Nicky Drayden – The Prey of Gods
  • Sarah Rees Brennan – In Other Lands
  • Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer
  • Jeanette Ng – Under the Pendulum Sun
  • N. K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky

There are far more books that interest me but a bit of realism doesn’t hurt. I don’t read as much as I used to, these days, so if I manage to read half of that list, I’ll consider it a success.

Which books did you read last year that you think nobody should miss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

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

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

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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