A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad

Pretty yet disappointing: Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

There was one book in 2019 that I had been looking forward to more than any others. I adored Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo-winning short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”, her blog, her writing in general, and the synopsis of her first novel sounded so utterly perfect that I had it pre-ordered as soon as it was listed on Amazon. Then the rave reviews came in and I was sure I was in for a treat. But – and this is my theme of 2019, apparently – hypes around certain books are not to be trusted. This was by no means a bad book! But it didn’t deliver what was promised and that was enough to leave me disappointed yet again.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY
by Alix E. Harrow

Published by: Redhook, 2019
Hardcover: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: When I was seven, I found a door.

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

January Scaller lives in a big old house with Mr. Locke, the man who has taken her in as a ward and given her father a job hunting for archeological artifacts. As a girl who’s not white (although nobody is sure just what color her skin is and with which specific prejudices people should meet her) in the early 20th century, January is constantly reminded how lucky she is to have such a benefactor. January gets an education, has a myriad of odd things to discover in Locke’s house, and yet never feels quite right.

We meet January as a meek but curious (in the sense of interested) girl who is bound by the laws of her time and her benefactor. Be quiet, stay in the background, be polite, don’t show too much emotion, don’t try to grow above your station… those are the rules January has to live by and she knows they suck just the way I knew it when I started reading this book. So it’s easy to feel sympathy for our protagonist but despite that sympathy, I had a hard time truly caring about January. She was like a portrait to me. Distant, a specimen, a sketchy character study rather than a person who felt real. Early on in this book, we are told (sometimes shown, but on many occasions just told, in exceedingly pretty words) that January is bookish, yearns to belong somewhere, kind of misses and doesn’t miss her absent father, and kind of loves but maybe doesn’t really love Locke, who has been more father to her than her actual one.

But not totally feeling the protagonist is not a reason to give up on this book. The language – oh, the language – was so lovely, I thought it might keep me reading all by itself. Who cares about plot or character when there are such words, strung together to paint pictures in my mind. It turns out, I did care eventually. The writing style, though without a doubt beautiful and lyrical, also gave me a sort of… studied impression. I don’t know how to explain it better (I wish I had Harrow’s talent for words right now!), but I never had the impression that those gorgeous descriptions flowed organically, but rather that they were researched and thought about and put there precisely at the right point with a scalpel. That may not change anything about how beautiful the prose is as such, but it left a sort of bitter aftertaste for me.

As for the other characters, most of them felt as distant to me as January. We are told many things about the small cast, but for my taste, we didn’t see enough of their actions to truly get to know them. Even Bad, January’s dog, didn’t excite me – and I’m usually a sucker for animals in stories. Sure, I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to fail, but I wasn’t really in it. Speaking of the bad guys. If the revelations at the end of the book were supposed to be unexpected plot twists, they failed miserably. It was very obvious from a very early point that there is something wrong with certain people and it didn’t even take that much imagination to figure out most of the truth, minor details excluded.

Which leads me to the plot as such. It is slow! It takes a long, long time to truly get started because the book is so focused on producing pretty words to describe things that almost nothing happens for the first half of the book. Well, almost nothing. My favorite part of this story – and the part that should have been a whole entire book, if I had anything to say about it – was the book within a book. January finds a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” one day and starts reading it. We get to read that book too, in alternating chapters (one chapter January story, one chapter book within a book), and while it also took me a chapter to warm to that story, I ended up really loving it. I cared about the characters in that story, I wanted to learn more about them and more about the world they come from. So, the actually fictional “Ten Thousand Doors” was a fantastic book for me, but sadly way too short, as it’s only part of the real world Ten Thousand Doors of January.

That title and the synopsis on the back of the book also imply things that are simply not delivered. Of course I didn’t expect to actually discover ten thousand doors into other worlds with our protagonist, but I was hoping for at least a few of them. We only really get to see one in any detail, and the world building for that had its own kind of magic that reminded me of Strange the Dreamer. It was everything I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in the real world, so this is more historical novel than fantasy (again, not a bad thing, but marketing led me to believe differently and I feel a little cheated). There simply wasn’t enough magic for my taste, at least during the first two thirds of the book.

Now, the last third finally got going. Every gripe I’ve mentioned above sort of goes away toward the end. January finally acts instead of just reacting to her surroundings, the plot turns into a thrilling ride with dangerous situations, plenty of magic and mythology, and I finally got the message of this story. It’s about love, spanning decades and worlds, about family and belonging, about finding out who you are and carving out your own place in the world. I really loved the ending of this book, but I can’t say it made up for the hours I spent reading just so I could get it done. I was bored for long stretches of this book and even the pretty writing didn’t help me get over my disappointment of finding something very different from what I had expected.

I know I’m pretty alone with that opinion and, believe me, I wish I was one of the many voices who raved about this book and gave it the highest ratings. I love Alix E. Harrow’s writing in general and I will definitely check out whatever she does next. But this book right here ended up being only okay for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

A Charming Middle-Grade Fairy Tale: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

October has been kind of a reading slump-y month for me and I’ve come to realize why. Because expectations are a bitch! Whether it’s a book hype on Twitter and Goodreads or simply misleading marketing by the publisher, once I’ve formed certain expectations and they aren’t met – even if the book is otherwise fine – it puts me off reading a book. While this book wasn’t a disappointment the way Gideon the Ninth was, it still was so completely different from what the cover, synopsis, and general buzz about it made me expect that it took me a while to get into it.

GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets.

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Jazz Age, Mexico, Mayan gods! These are only three things that made me excited for this book. I had also heard nothing but great things about the author herself and I love mythology retellings, especially when they are written for adults (like Circe or The Golem and the Jinni). But this was also my first mistake. Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – did I see any mentions that this was a YA book or, how I would categorize it, a middle-grade one. The cover doesn’t look particularly like YA, it is shelved as “Adult” on Goodreads, and none of the reviews I’d read made me expect anything but an adult mythology retelling with a teenaged protagonist.

So the writing style was the first thing that threw me. Casiopea Tun lives a Cinderella-like life in her grandfather’s house, where she cleans, cooks, fetches things for her insufferable, arrogant douche of a cousin Martín, and can only dream of the wider world. Until, that is, she opens a chest which contains some bones. These bones happen to belong to the Mayan god of the Underworld, Hun-Kamé who has been imprisoned by his jealous brother who now sits on the throne of Xibalba. Because Casiopea freed Hun-Kamé and also got a piece of bone stuck in her thumb, these two are now connected and she has to go with him on a quest to retrieve his missing pieces that will restore him to full power. Adventure ensues.

The plot is pretty straight-forward, nothing unexpected happens, and the whole book reads more like a fable or (and that’s a plus, in my book) a fairy tale than anything else. The writing is quick and to the point, there is a lot of telling instead of showing, the plot moves fast and felt almost episodic. Each chapter is a new city, a new piece of Hun-Kamé to retrieve, a new enemy to defeat or mythological creature to meet. None of these adventures were bad. I enjoyed most of them a lot, to be honest, but at the same time it all felt so incredibly simple, so child-like. Even the romance, which I found sweet and subtle, was fitting for 12-year-old readers. The only reason this bothered me so much was because that’s not at all what the book promised! Had I known from the start what kind of novel I was picking up, I would have probably loved it from the start. But since I had to adjust my expectations, I only started really liking this after the first third.

Another disappointment were the setting and the time period. The setting lived mostly through its mythology and I loved learning about Xibalba, various mythical creatures and Mayan rituals. But Mexico didn’t really come to life for me. The Roaring Twenties aspect was represented even less. Sure, most chapters begin with a short introduction of the place Casiopea and Hun-Kamé are visiting, but mentioning bobbed hair and fast dances here and there does not make any of this come to life. This didn’t make the reading experience less pleasurable, but it also did nothing to enhance what was already a very simplistic story. There was so much potential for depth, for turning this fast-paced children’s book into what it was sold as. But apart from the fact that Mayan gods are characters, this story could have happened anywhere and during any number of time periods.

Now that I’ve got the gripes out of the way, let me tell you why this book is worth your while anyway! First of all, you, faithful readers, are aware of what you’re going to get yourselves into. Don’t pick this up if you want something like The Song of Achilles, pick it up if you feel like a light-hearted fantasy read with interesting mythology. Because what you’ll get is actually a really sweet tale of a young girl breaking out of her sad life, finding confidence, falling in love for the first time, and growing up a bit. Casiopea may be the protagonist but – just like in a lot of children’s books – she is almost a little bland. Although we’re told how feisty and headstrong she is, mostly she’s just a really good person who happens to be a teenager and thus wants things, such as freedom and pretty dresses and to be kissed by a boy. I liked her enormously, but from a storytelling persepective, I found Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s jerk cousin Martín even more interesting. Martín is the kind of spoiled brat who believes himself a gift to whomever may walk in his presence and I loathed him with a passion. But then he gets his own point of view chapters and you realize there is more to him than meets the eye. Not much more, mind you, but more nonetheless.

Hun-Kamé, that dark, mysterious god was the perfect romantic interest for a YA novel. Kind of brooding, super sexy, protective of the heroine… but being a god who’s missing some of his pieces, and thus some of his power, he’s also going through an interesting development. As a piece of his bone is stuck in Casiopea’s finger, her humanity is swapping over to Hun-Kamé just as she gets some of his godly powers. I felt that Hun-Kamés slow turn from godly aloofness to an almost human young man was fantastically done. Just like the romance, the changes happen gradually. It is subtle at first and becomes more and more obvious as the story progresses. Because I hate insta-love and enjoy character-focused stories, I really liked that part of the narrative.

In the reviews I’ve since read of this book, some readers were disappointed in the ending but I really liked it. Much like the plot that came before, I didn’t really find it surprising but even in its predictability, it had a lot of charm. Casiopea’s story felt well-rounded, she had grown as a person, seen more of the world, experienced romantic feelings – oh yeah, and also fought terrifying creatures, helped the god of the Underworld, and seen places others can only dream of. Although this book absolutely isn’t what it appears to be, it is a lovely kids’ adventure story with Mayan mythology.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

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

GIDEON THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay

 

A Slow-ish Return to the Grishaverse: Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars

We’re back in the Grishaverse with a new duology and one gorgeous cover! I’ll keep this review spoiler-free. However, reading even the synopsis of this book gives you a mild spoiler for the Grisha Trilogy, because you’ll know of one character who survives those books. I don’t think it’s a bad spoiler, but if you haven’t read The Grisha Trilogy, I recommend you start there. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book but they get better and better and totally sucked me into their world.

KING OF SCARS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Imprint, 2019
Hardcover: 514 pages
Series: The Nikolai Duology #1,
The Grishaverse #6
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Dima heard the barn doors slam before anyone else did.

Synopsis: Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war—and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, the young king must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army.
Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha Squaller, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried—and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

When I heard there would be a new duology set in the Grishaverse, starring none other than my favorite side character from the original trilogy, let’s just say I got pretty excited! Then I read some early reviews which all agreed that the book started slowly – I’m fine with that, give me the slow burn, ease me back into the world, remind me of all the cool stuff that happened before. I value those reviews greatly, because they also warned me that we follow two almost entirely separate storylines and knowing what to expect can help a lot when reading such a buzzed about book. I am currently reading another book that got nothing but rave reviews and halfway through I’m already kind of disappointed, simply because my expectations were too high… So, knowing what you’re getting yourself into is a good thing.

We’re back in Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov is the new King and he’s doing his very best to rule fairly, to restore order to the kingdom, and you know… to keep that monster that’s still inside him in check somehow. With Zoya, Genya, Tolya, and Tamar at his side, he’s got a great supporting crew but  the Darkling’s legacy is not so easy to deal with. On the one hand, Nikolai has episodes when the monster gets through and wreaks havoc. He has no control, he has to be tied to his bed, and he has to keep this problem secret from the public. After all, what would the people say to a king who turns into a monster every so often? When he hears of a potential cure, it’s clear he now has a quest to go on. Adventure ensues.

What I loved the most about this storyline and its central characters was the dynamic between Nikolai and Zoya. She may not have been a very nice character in the Grisha Trilogy, but being overly ambitious doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s easily one of the most interesting people in the Grishaverse and now that she got her own POV chapters, she really grew on me. The banter between her and Nikolai was great fun to read, although I did feel that Nikolai has lost a bit of his rogue-ish charms. Which makes complete sense if you think about what he’s going through. He is now ruler of his country – a burden that surely weighs on him – and he constantly has to worry that, in monster-form, he will do something unforgivable. The cocky, slightly arrogant Nikolai is still there, he’s just tuned it down a bit.

Meanwhile in Fjerda, Nina is back from Ketterdam. She is dealing with her own problems and while they are very different from Nikolai’s, they are no less grave. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology, you know exactly what I’m talking about, but I’ll keep it spoiler free for those of you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these two remarkable books. Nina is not the same person she was, both physically and mentally. Even her powers have changed and with them, Nina’s reason to even go on. Her story leads her through Fjerda, hiding the fact that she’s Grisha, trying to save others from prosecution. She makes new friends on the way, discovers secrets that could have devastating consequences for all of Ravka and is basically saving the world all over again.

I do have to say that Nina’s story took me a long time to get into. Both plot strings start out slowly, but with Nikolai and Zoya, at least you get the quippy banter and the tension between the two. Nina is mostly depressed (understandably so) and there is definitely a new aggressive streak to her character. As bad as I feel about saying it, I didn’t like her all that much in this book. Similar to the way Nina herself was kind of lost in the world, I felt lost in her story. It took a long time for any kind of red thread to appear that I could follow plot-wise. If there had been a lot of character development in the meantime, that would have been okay, but with Nina stagnant in her grief and no plot to speak of, her chapters were the ones I had to push myself to continue.

This wouldn’t be a Grisha novel if things didn’t pick up speed eventually. And trust me, big things happen at the end. There were a few revelations, some of which promise great political intrigue to come in the second book, and others that felt rather cheap. I can’t tell you why without spoiling it but I hope we’ll find out more in the next volume. I also hope that the new Big Bad is not who I think it is.

One more thing I have to mention is a couple of side characters: Isaak, one of the royal guards, and Princess Ehri, one of Nikolai’s potential suitors – he needs a queen, after all. Through circumstance, these two characters are thrown together in what almost turns into a Shakespearean comedy of errors (minus the comedy), but they grew on me really quickly. Compared to the other characters, they are definitely less important, but I loved meeting some new people, especially ones as interesting as these two. Their story line seemed to go one way but it, too, has a few surprises in store.

All things considered, I’m rating this book somewhere in the okay to good range. It won’t make much sense to read it if you haven’t read any Grisha books before and if you have, you’ll probably push though the boring bits, just the way I did, because you know it’ll be worth it. Well, this was a good book, but both the pacing and the plot could have used some serious work. It takes a long time to get started in the first place and then doesn’t seem to know quite where to go. I will definitely read the sequel because Leigh Bardugo is great at sequels (and endings!) but this book was only okay.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

Holy smokes, where have all these months disappeared to? I could swear it was July a week ago, but here we are, at the beginning of October (speaking of which, I have to find me some witchy reads for Halloween). The summer months have probably been my best reading months in years, if not ever! I participated in the NEWTs Readathon which meant I first had to catch up on the OWLs readathon. Both of these were crazy months where I got a lot of reading done. I’m happy to announce that among the many books I read were also a few retellings.

What I’ve Read

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker was one of the group reads for this readathon and I absolutely loved it! From the very beginning, this quiet tale of a Golem and a Jinni grabbed me. I enjoyed following them as they found their footing in a new world, within new cultures, and as they became friends. But while this is mostly a quiet story with lots of focus on characters, there is quite an epic ending. I cannot recommend this enough. The language is beautiful, the characters are so engaging, and the story itself had me close to tears several times.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread was quite a different experience. It may not be a precise retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but it uses many of the fairy tale’s motifs. Gingerbread is the most obvious ones, but there are also breadcrumbs, houses in forests, and friendships that last through the ages. Most of all, it is the story of a mother and daughter, of how the mother grew to be who she is, why the daughter has turned into who she is and how their past connects them as much as their present. The family relations in this tale get surprisingly complex, but once I found my way into this rather strange story, I was enjoying myself a lot. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea. If you like magical realism (randomly talking dolls, anyone?) then definitely try it, though.

I also finally read The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. It was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for, expect shorter and with less depth. We follow the story of Loki, from his brith as an Asgardian god to his demise – all narrated by himself, in the arrogant, hilarious manner you’d expect. I loved the narration, the silly nicknames he gave the other gods, the tricks he played on them and especially his relationship with Thor. In fact, I loved it so much that I would have liked more of the same. More chapters of Loki’s exploits, his travels with Thor, his trickery and cleverness. But Harris tells a proper story that leads straight to the end of Asgard. From a proper critic’s standpoint I would probably command her for writing a proper beginning and end, but as I read this simply for enjoyment, I felt a little let down by how things ended. Not that it came as a surprise but it was slightly anticlimactic. However, I will very likely pick up the sequel.

I also read The Ice Puzzle by Catherynne M. Valente – a retelling or reimagining of The Snow Queen from the point of view of different cultures. As this is one of Valente’s earlier works, it pretty much has no plot but tons of gorgeous language and beautiful imagery. This novella was like falling into a dream. Things don’t always make sense, you don’t know who all of the characters are, but you just roll with it. And what unfolds is snippets of a Snow Queen, of a young girl trying to save a boy, of mirror shards and pieces of ice stuck in an eye. I didn’t love this as much as I do Valente’s other work, but it was definitely a new kind of retelling for me.

I finally finished The Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch. This was a great book but unfortunately, I started reading it at a bad time. You have to be in the right mood for this in order to fully appreciate it. I put the book away for several months and when I picked it back up, I was exactly as excited as I should have been from the start. It is the conclusion to Vasya’s story. It brings together the elements from the first and second book beautifully and even mixes a lot of real historical events and people into Vasya’s fictional story. Once I got into the atmosphere  of this book again, I loved every page. The Bear and the Nightingale is still my favorite of the trilogy but this was definitely a worthy ending.

Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places landed on my TBR pile because it won a Mythopoeic Award – a goldmine for retellings of myths, fairytales, and altogether books that I like. Reading it was a strange experience. While I read it, I was quite engaged, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted the characters to figure out how to break the fairy curse at the heart of this story. But whenever I put the book down, I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. I also felt that the most interesting characters weren’t featured enough. Instead, the story is told from one POV, and he was one of the least interesting people in this book. It was a fun read with many nods to fairy tales and fairies in general, but now that I’ve thought about it for a while, I’d rate it only okay.

My favorite retelling of the last few months and probably the whole year was Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. It retells East of the Sun and West of the Moon with a few changes and one mind-blowing twist. Instead of a polar bear, Echo, our protagonist, has to live with a white wolf in an enchanted castle. The castle itself feels like a character – there are so many rooms to discover and so much magic hidden inside of it. And it has a library… a magical library. Need I say more? I also loved that this story manages to take the heroine’s really, really stupid decision from the original fairy tale and make it feel sensible. The villain was fantastic, the last third of the book went by in a blur of action and adventure, and because I was rooting so much for Echo, that twist at the end completely wrecked me. I’m not ging to say any more about it, just please pick up this book if you like fairy tale retellings. It is a true gem!

And another highly recommended book, this time for graphic novel fans: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples. This is Snow White from the stepmother’s perspective, except Snow White isn’t the fairy tale princess we know. Without spoiling, I’ll only say that the roles of villain and heroine are flipped in a very original way. It has all the things you know from the original tale – poisoned apples, mirrors, skin as white as snow – but the way Gaiman turned the story on its head, nothing should work but everything does. All the beats of the original tale fit perfectly into this new version. This is a short comic book but it’s also surprisingly dark. The artwork is gorgeous (if you’re into the style, obviously) and had me so impressed I read the book two times in a row.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow
    Although this doesn’t fit into any of the slots left on my bingo card, I have started this story featuring Aztect gods. I have been buying Moreno-García’s book for a while, but this is the first one I’m finally going to pick up.
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning
    This is a Jane Eyre retelling set in space. Since I’ve already read The Lunar Chronicles, my options for this bingo slot are slim, but I quite look forward to this. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a while so I’m quite interested in how this author deals with the story and makes it work in a futuristic setting.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now. A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red plus Swan Lake sounds too good to miss. Since it features sisters – with all the love and rivalry that comes with it – I am even more intrigued. And I’ve also never read anything by McLemore but she keeps being recommended, so it’s about time I found out if I like her writing.

General Thoughts

I did not realise I’d read that many retellings. To be honest, I didn’t focus on this challenge at all during the last three months, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me how many retellings crept into my reading. With The Golem and the Jinni I got my first bingo on the Bingo Card, but I’m still planning to fill the entire card so there are still some books left for me to discover. The prompts are getting harder and harder to fulfill. While I do own some books that fit into the remaining categories, I’m not particularly in the mood for some of them at the moment. We’ll see how it goes but I am more motivated than ever to actually pull off my crazy plan.

In all honesty, at the beginning of the year, I thought my goal of reading books for all the prompts was way too ambitious but I like big goals. 🙂 I would have been fine with a single bingo, but now that I’m this close to finishing the entire card, there’s no way I’m stopping.

How’s your reading going? Are you (still) participating in this challenge? Which books can you recommend for my missing bingo slots – I’d really appreciate your recommendations!

A Forever War: Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade

It’s been a long time since I read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but I remember being really impressed at the time. Now this book here is like an answer or maybe more a story in dialogue with the classic Heinlein novel. But then Kameron Hurley also adds multiple layers to her military science fiction story and tries her hardest to break her readers’ brains, in the best of ways. So in short: This was a pleasure and one of my top reads of the year so far!

THE LIGHT BRIGADE
by Kameron Hurley

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: They said the war would turn us into light.

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.
Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.
Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.
A worthy successor to classic stories like Downbelow Station, Starship Troopers, and The Forever War, The Light Brigade is award-winning author Kameron Hurley’s gritty time-bending take on the future of war.

This story begins in the same spirit and with many nods to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Dietz, a young person joining the military to fight against Mars, goes through boot camp training. I will say right away that Dietz’s gender remains unknown throughout the novel. That was the first thing that caught my interest. With a platoon composed of all genders, I kept trying to guess whether Dietz was a man or a women or non-binary, only to find out soon enough that it really didn’t matter and had no impact on the story. So I let it go and simply let the story sweep me away.

The weeks of boot camp are as grueling as you’d expect. They are well written, made me cringe several times, and also do most of the groundwork for Hurley’s world building. We find out why this future version of Earth is at war with Mars. Mainly because Martians blew up part of the moon. And, oh yeah, they zipped a ton of people into nothing, leaving only devastation and grieving friends and family behind. So of course there has to be a war. This future is also not run by governments the way we know them, but by corporations (which, to be honest, isn’t much different from our governments but at least we keep up the pretense…). And people are far from equal. Much like in Heinlein’s story, in Kameron Hurley’s future, a person can earn citizenship through military service. Which would get you voting rights, access to better health care and so on – things any human being should have a right to, but it’s the future and it’s grim.

I have covered only the first few chapters of this book and you see that there’s already so much to discover! Once training is done, it’s time for Dietz to take on their first actual mission. In order to get to Mars – or wherever the next battle is supposed to happen – the soldiers are turned into atoms and sent there as beams of light. So far, so cool. Except Dietz’s very first drop is… weird. Everybody keeps telling them to stick to the mission brief but what if the mission brief is something completely different than the situation you currently find yourself in? It’s not a spoiler to say that this is exactly what happens to Dietz. Again and again. Dietz is sent on one mission, finds themselves somehow in the middle of a completely different one, returns home to find friends missing, is interrogated by a psychiatrist who also seems to know more than she lets on, and things generally don’t make any sense.

It is exactly this mystery that makes this book so enticing. Sure, the mission drops themselves are fun to read too, and they definitely help you figuring out the larger secret. These missions also make Dietz question more and more who they are really fighting against and for whom they are really fighting. If you like reading something that introduces a world only to turn it upside down, twist it around, and put it back together in a new way, then this is for you. I loved looking for snippets of information, for little hints here and there to find out what the hell was going on. I am also glad I didn’t figure it all out for myself (because that would be boring), but there are enough hints to at least point you in the right direction. For someone like me, who loves a good riddle or puzzle, this was enormous fun.

But that’s just the plot part of the book. There is yet more here hidden underneath the surface. While Dietz is almost the only character whose personality we really get to know – due to others dying during the war, disappearing, or simply not being prominent enough characters – Hurley paints a pretty clear picture of the world. Everything may be shit for most of Earth’s population, but apparently one’s sexual preferences aren’t interesting anymore. It is so refreshing to read a book where people can just be together or make out or have sex, no matter their gender identities. Dietz has sex with at least one man and one woman throughout this novel. There are married people in this book who sleep with people of a different gender than their marriage partner. Everyone seems to be just who they are, nobody seems to care, and it was just so damn nice to read about a world where that’s possible.

I won’t say any more about the plot because it really is worth discovering for yourselves. The ending, however, was amazing. All the puzzle pieces fall together, things from the very beginning of the book suddenly make sense and gain a significance you didn’t know they had. The interview scenes that are strewn between regular chapters also take on a different light. So although I am usually very focused on characters and this book really only had one well-developed character, I enjoyed this immensely and recommend it to everyone who can get their hands on a copy.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

The Grand Finale: Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch

Sometimes, it’s important to read a book at the right time. I started this at a bad time, which is why I put it aside halfway through, only to rush through the ending last week. The lesson I learned from this is that, no matter how much you loved the first books in a trilogy and how much you trust an author, forcing yourself to pick up a book when you’re just not in the mood is a bad thing. Even if that means reading a book months after publication, after everyone else has already learned how the story ends.

THE WINTER OF THE WITCH
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 372 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #3
My rating: 8/10

First line: Dust at the end of winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen.
Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.
Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

The Winter of the Witch picks up pretty seamlessly after the events of The Girl in the Tower. As the world is already established and the characters well-known, the readers are thrown straight into action with Vasya running for her life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she escapes that first attempt on her life (otherwise, what would the other 250 pages be about?), but Vasya’s road takes her to decidedly new places that may have their roots in Rus but definitely aren’t to be found on any map. This book also delivers one of the hardes blows right at the start. Maybe that was part of why I had to put it away for a while, because let me tell you, I could not handle what happened. I’ll have to be this vague for fear of spoiling it for you but be prepared for heartbreak and have tissues ready when you read this!

I loved how Katherine Arden not only brought together the first two books of this trilogy but also incorporated other Russian myths such as Baba Yaga or the Firebird. All of these elements are there in Vasya’s story but they make perfect sense for her tale, not simply as cameo appearances from other fairy tales. As Vasya learns to walk the Midnight Road, she tries her best to save her family, her country, and the chyerti from invading Tatars, invading Christianity, and from the rage of the chaos spirit Medved  – he’s the bear we met in the first book, remember?

This volume also progresses Vasya’s relationship to Morozko, the winter-king. Being a fangirl as I am, I had long hoped for a romance to develop between these two, but as this story went along, I felt that Vasya’s fate was bigger than that. Her whole point is to not be bound to a man or have her life dictated by one. Which doesn’t mean she’s immune to hormones or the wish to have a partner. But Arden did a great job in making clear that Vasya’s purpose in this story is so much bigger than her finding a man – even a magical one – but rather, you know, saving the world and stuff.

Mostly, what this book does is turn the intial conflict of The Bear and the Nightingcale up to eleven, add an invading force of Tatars to the mix, tensions in the world of the chyerti, and what you get is an epic tale with Vasilisa Petrovna at the center. I cannot say how much I loved her character development, not only because she is finding her place in the world, learning what she has to do in order to save her people, and discovering some long-hidden truths about her heritage. But also because she finds out she has a dark side. Vasya isn’t pure good – she would be a boring character if that was the case – but she is aware of this fact and so she also knows that any pleasure she takes in others’ pain takes her closer to someone she doesn’t want to be. She is constantly walking a knife’s edge between good and evil (if you want to call it that) and she is desperately trying to keep the chyerti alive while also feeling compassion for those who follow the Christian faith.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the plot, but let me leave you with a few thoughts on the ending. Rus is looking to fight a battle with the odds stacked very much against it; Vasya wants to find a way for the old faith and the new to live alongside each other, which is also not looking too good. Medved is spreading chaos (and zombies/vampires… did I mention those?), Konstantin is spreading lies, Morozko is a creature of winter and so no great help during summer. So things look pretty grim all around. And I’m not saying everything will turn out alright because that would also be boring. But Katherine Arden stuck the ending on a perfect, bittersweet note, adding one little extra that made my heart soar with joy.

Having read these books in the year they came out, I wonder what it would be like to devour them one right after the other. Maybe one day I’ll make myself do a Winternight readathon and dive into the gorgeous, mythical world that Katherine Arden has created, inspired by Medieval Russia, but filled with original ideas and the best characters a reader can hope for.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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

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

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

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

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

OBSIDIO
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good