SFF Plagues: Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Apparently, I’m the kind of person who feels the need to read books about epidemics during an acutal real-world pandemic. I understand that many people are different and want to steer away from post-apocalyptic fiction and zombie novels as long as the world is in lock-down, but I find a strange kind of comfort in reading about situations similar – but thankfully, different enough! – to ours. This book hit me very hard, it put me through all the emotions, and I still have wet eyes as I type this.

DOOMSDAY BOOK
by Connie Willis

Published: Bantam, 1992
Ebook: 593 pages
Series: Oxford Time Travel #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

It’s the year 2054 and Oxford historians travel back in time to do their research. Among them is young Kivrin who has been dreaming of going to 1320 since she was little. Until recently, the Middle Ages had been rated a 10 on the danger scale, disallowing historians to travel there, but as developments change, Kivrin does get her chance. Her tutor Mr. Dunworthy tries to keep her from going but she will not be deterred. And of course, things go terribly wrong…

This is a book told in two timelines. In one, we follow Kivrin into the Middle Ages, in the other we worry with Mr. Dunworthy in the present (well, his present). And while the jump into the past seems to have gone well, the technician who is supposed to read the necessary data to bring Kivrin back in two weeks, has fallen suddenly ill. A new kind of ill. A virus that quickly spreads thorughout Oxford and has the city under quarantine in no time. Mr. Dunworthy has to turn the college into wards for sick people, his friend Dr. Ahrens basically lives in the hospital, and something didn’t go right with Kivrin’s time travel… except Badri, the technician, is to ill to tell anyone.

There’s a lot going on here! Dealing with an epidemic is one thing, but mostly what the chapters in the present (I’m just going to call it that, even though it is technically our future) deal with is Dunworthy making lots of calls, waiting for people to call him back, getting other technicians into Oxford, making more calls, and dealing with the people around him, who are in various states of panic.
Kivrin, on the other hand, arrives safely in the Middle Ages, although something also doesn’t seem to be right. Not only does she fall ill immediately (but how? She has been inoculated against all the possible diseases she might catch from that time period), but her translator doesn’t appear to work. So she can’t understand what people are saying and she can’t make herself understoo! Her cover story gets thrown out of the window as she simply tries to stay alive, learn the language, and not get herself burned at the stake as a witch.

What really made this book for me was the characters. The protagonists grew dear to me very quickly, as it’s really hard not to love courageous Kivrin and her father figure Dunworthy. But also the side characters – even the ones I didn’t like – were amazing. Dr. Ahrens’ 12-year-old nephew gets sort of dumped on Dunworthy but he turns out to be way more resourceful than first expected. Dunworthy’s assistant (if that’s what he was, I can’t be quite sure) Mr. Finch also outdoes himself taking on most of the organisational duties that Dunworthy can’t take care of himself. Mary Ahrens, who fights for every patient that comes to her hospital and who still has kind words of reassurance for her friends even though she is overworked. The technicians and historians – some of whom are actually just idiots – all felt like real people.
The same goes for the people Kivrin meets in the past. I was probably fondest of the child Agnes and Father Roche, who made the small village where Kivrin spends her time come alive despite the restricted setting. I saw them all vividly in my mind, I thought of them as real people, so I was all the more involved in their fate. Every once in a while I kept reminding myself that – even if Kivrin makes it out of this alive and can return to the present – all of these people will have been dead for 700 years, with or without a deadly plague, and it totally killed me. If you can get me to care that much about your characters, you have done something right!

Connie Willis is doubtlessly a great writer, but one really annoying habit she has in this book is the constant repetition of important facts. Two characters would have a conversation about when the plague came to England (1348, in case you’re wondering, and I’ll probably never forget it) to make sure us readers are up to date on this important bit of information. Then a character would be thinking the exact same information – sometimes even in the exact same words – to himself again. And in the following chapter, there’d be at least two other incidences where someone thinks or mentions when the plague came to England. The same goes for the three types of plague, how a virus spreads, what medieaval doctors tried to cure the plague, etc. etc.
I understand that the author wants her readers to have a good knowledge base for the story to work but just because someone doesn’t know very much about the Middle Ages doesn’t mean we’re all morons who have to be told the same thing 50 times in a row. We’re already involved in these characters’ lives – we care. So vital information is more likely to stick anyway because we’re just as worried about Kivrin as Mr. Dunworthy is. And we’re just as aware of the danger Dr. Ahrens is in because she’s treating hundreds of sick, contagious patients every day.

With that little rant out of the way, let me tell why I still loved this book. It is precisely because I was so besotted with the characters that I didn’t care how the author kind of talked down to me. Yeah, fine, so you think I need to be reminded yet again how each of the three plague types manifests, but if that’s what it takes for me to see what happens to Kivrin, then so be it. Were this not such a great story, I probably would have been much more annoyed with this, but because I adored the ideas and the characters and the plot, it was easier for me to just let it go. And I did learn a great deal about the time period and about diseases in general…

Connie Willis does a fantastic job of slowly building up her world and her characters, of making readers care for them, flawed as they may be, and then cranking things up to eleven on the emotion scale. I cried almost constantly throughout the last quarter of the book for various reasons. Characters dying, characters showing incredible courage, humanity working together in spite of terrible odds… It’s true I may have been a bit more susceptible to scenes like that because we’re dealing with similar situations in our world. Doctors working without sleep for days, nurses trying to make very ill patients as comfortable as possible, regardless of the danger to themselves – it’s all here in this book and it’s happening in our world right now too! And because now I know just how close to home Connie Willis hit with her fictional tale, I was all the more weepy.

If you’re currently reading only books to escape the real world, steer clear away from this one. But once this Corona pandemic is over and we have returned to some kind of normality (however that will look), I urge you to pick this up. It didn’t win a Hugo and a Nebula for nothing. This book makes me understand why Willis has so many die hard fans and why she keeps getting nominated for awards. It will proably be a while until I dare to pick up another book by her because I can only handle so many emotions at a time, but after reading Doomsday Book, I fully plan on reading her entire back catalogue. What a an amazing book!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

2020 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

I can’t believe a quarter of the year is already over again. It feels like I just made those reading resolutions, endless lists of new publications to watch out for, and checked out other people’s Best-of-2019 lists.
But since we took our big sunny vacation during winter this year, I actually managed to get a lot of reading done, especially for the wonderful 2020 Retellings Challenge hosted by Tracy at Cornerfolds. It was my first time travelling to a warm place when it’s cold at home and I can highly recommend it. It did wonders for my mood, my tan, and of course my reading time. And sipping on a fresh coconut is at least as cool as having a cup of tea while reading a nice book.

What I’ve read

Just like last year and just like with any reading challenge, my chosen books ranged from brilliant to pretty bad with everything in between. I’m making it a little harder for myself this year by not counting books that would technically fit certain prompts. For example, Winterglass (still fantastic!) was a re-read, so I’m not counting it. Sword of Destiny is technically a collection of short stories where only one of them fulfills the prompt (includes mermaids) and I felt that if I counted that book I would kind of be cheating. I’m still listing them here because they are retellings but I’ll pick other books for the bingo squares.

So far, the absolute standout book I read for this challenge was Descendant of the Crane, although I’m not even sure it’s a retelling of something. It’s set in a Chinese-inspired fantasy kingdom and it uses some mythology elements but whether it counts or not, it was an excellent book! Mirrorstrike, the sequel to Winterglass wasn’t as good as the first book but I’m still very much looking forward to the sequel.
I checked off one of the toughest prompts (a book over 500 pages) with Tessa Gratton’s retelling of Shakespeare’s King LearThe Queens of Innis Lear which was pretty amazing. And I finally read Diana Peterfreund’s sci-fi retelling of Jane Austen’s PersuasionFor Darkness Shows the Stars.
What I like about this challenge is that it forces me to read outside my comfort zone – that was very much the case with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is exactly what the title suggests. It was a great book, although very different from what I normally read. I’m so glad to have picked it up as it’s also the first book translated from Arabic that I’ve ever read.
I also really enjoyed the March group read, A Study in Charlotte, which is about the descendants of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It was different than what I expected but a fun, quick read that made me want to pick up the sequel. And an even quicker read was Keturah and Lord Death, which is kind of Hades and Persephone and kind of 1001 Nights wrapped in a medieval romance. It was really sweet.
An audiobook that started out really well and then sort of meandered on to a mediocre ending was Juliet Marillier’s Beautiful. The only book I read that I would call bad was Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception. One bad book and one middling one out of 11 total is a pretty good ratio, I’d say.

My retellings reading plan

As usual, I don’t set myself a specific TBR but I do want to stay on top of this challenge because the Hugo shortlist is about to be announced and that always means reading a lot of works I missed last year. For the Retellings Challenge, I have picked out at least one book for each prompt, just to be prepared, but if I discover something new that fits a prompt, I may just go with that.
I have already started my book for the African myth prompt, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, during my vacation and I’m absolutely loving it. It’s not an easy book to read, though, and it wants to be savored so I may be “currently reading” this one for a while yet. But if it continues the way it started, it may end up on my favorite books of the year list!

  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf (African myth)
  • E. K. Johnston – A Thousand Nights (1001 nights)
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning (set in space)
  • Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss (features mermaids)
  • Victoria McCombs – The Storyteller’s Daughter (German fairy tale – Rumpelstiltskin)

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this year’s challenge as much as last year’s because the prompts seemed much more difficult for me. While retellings of fairy tales and Jane Austen are abundant, there isn’t as much to choose from when it comes to Frankenstein or Les Misérables retellings. But with a bit of research and recommendations from other participants, I think this year may turn out to be even more rewarding. Because the prompts challenge me more, I am forced to discover  books I would otherwise not even consider and I’m sure there will be at least one hidden gem among them.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a new favorite? Have you been disappointed by an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments!

Falling in Love With Death: Martine Leavitt – Keturah and Lord Death

This is a fairy tale-esque book I’ve been meaning to read forever. It’s part 1001 Nights, part Hades and Persephone, and part medieval romance. Its simplicity is at the same time what makes it so lovely and also what will probably make it disappear from my memory quite fast.

KETURAH AND LORD DEATH
by Martine Leavitt

Published: Boyds Mill Press, 2006
Ebook: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Keturah, tell us a story,” said Naomi, “one of your tales of faërie or magic.”

Keturah, renowned for her storytelling, follows a legendary hart deep into the forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near—and learns then that death is a young lord, melancholy and stern. She is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain a reprieve, but he grants her only a day, and within that day she must find true love. A mesmerizing love story, interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance.

Keturah lives in a small village that has come into disrepair and wants very little of life. She wants her grandmother to be well, her best friends Beatrice and Gretta to be happy, and a true love for herself. When she gets lost in the wood and almost freezes to death, she meets a tall dark stranger who turns out to be none other than Lord Death himself. Not wanting to die without having experienced love yet, she tells him a story but leaves out the ending, bargaining for another day in which she can prove to Death that she can find her true love and marry him.

So begins the fairy tale of Keturah and Lord Death. Keturah doesn’t mess around but promptly seeks out the village wise woman (read: witch) for a charm to let her know which of the eligible bachelors in town may be Keturah’s own true love. And then go and follow her in her daily business, get to know other characters and see that, to Keturah’s dismay, none of the village boys seems to be her true love, no matter how much she likes them or how much they admire her.

This story is a very simple one but that doesn’t mean it’s easily dismissed. Not only does Keturah have to keep bargaining with Death – by use of unfinished stories – for another day, and another after that, but the way her home town sees her also changes. They accuse her of witchcraft, of having met fairies, of being in league with Death! The only people who always, always stick by Keturah’s side are her grandmother and her two best friends. It seems silly to mention in a tale like this because it really does read like a fairy tale, but the female friendships were truly heartwarming. Beatrice and Gretta not only try their best to help Keturah but even offer up the men they are secretly in love with for her to marry – just so she can escape being taken by Death.

For a book this slim, there’s actually a lot going on. The town expects a visit from the King, there is a threat of plague (how timely…), and a big celebration is coming up, including a cooking contest that Keturah needs to win in order to potentially marry one of the boys in town – men in his family only marry Best Cook because tradition. The fairy tale-like writing style worked pretty well and while not much happens that couldn’t be predicted from the first page, I was never bored.
But it was also the writing style that makes this book a little forgettable. I quite enjoyed it while I read it but it really did feel like reading an old tale that I had read many times before. There were no twists, no real villains, there was just a bunch of essentially good people and beautiful Keturah, who is possibly the best of them all.

The conclusion also doesn’t come as a surprise, and I don’t think it tried to. For us readers, it’s clear from the start who Keturah’s true love is and who she will end up marrying, but watching Keturah herself slowly learn this truth was a lot of fun. Even though I feel bad for the boys who clearly had a crush on her.

If you want a quick read that reminds you of being a child, reading fairy tales in bed, do pick this up. It’s a lovely little story with wonderful characters. And even though I’ll probably forget all their names within the next week, I will remember the feelings this book gave me fondly.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Modern Gender-Flipped Sherlock Holmes: Brittany Cavallaro – A Study in Charlotte

Again, the 2020 Retellings Challenge is helping me conquer my insurmountable TBR by pushing me to read books that I would otherwise have neglected for another few years. In this case, we have a Sherlock Holmes “retelling” that follows the descendants of Holmes and Watson in an American high school. While this book was definitely not perfect, it actually worked really well and made me want to continue the series.

A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE
by Brittany Cavallaro

Published: Katherine Tegen Books, 2016
Ebook: 341 pages
Series: Charlotte Holmes #1
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: The first time I met her was at the tail end of one of those endless weekday nights you could only have at a school like Sherringford.

The last thing Jamie Watson wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who has inherited not only Sherlock’s genius but also his volatile temperament. From everything Jamie has heard about Charlotte, it seems safer to admire her from afar.
From the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else. But when a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Jamie and Charlotte are being framed for murder, and only Charlotte can clear their names. But danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

It seems pre-destined for Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes to meet and team up. But at the beginning of his school year, Jamie doesn’t think that’s ever going to happen. Because Charlotte Holmes – as brilliant as she might be – is distant and not at all interested in starting a friendship with him. When Jamie beats up a bully protecting Charlotte, her reaction is not thankful maiden but rather stay-out-of-my-business ice queen. When said bully turns up dead a few days later and both Jamie and Charlotte are the prime suspects, however, Charlotte agrees to team up.

This book was in many ways exactly what I expected and in other ways highly surprising. While it is a murder mystery that needs to be solved by Charlotte (with Jamie’s help), what drew me in more was the characters. Jamie is a nice guy who loves the stories about his great-great-great-grandfather and who may want to follow in his footsteps. Charlotte, however, is cold and severe, and she also has a drug problem. While I have read some Sherlock Holmes books, that came out of nowhere for me and turned the entire book a little darker than I had expected. Charlotte’s history with the now dead bully also deserves trigger warnings!

For a long time, Jamie and Charlotte have very little to go on, so they just investigate along with pretty much no useful clues turning up. This could have been boring but with such an intriguing character to discover, I wasn’t bored for a second. Figuring Charlotte out is what made this book fun, if you can call it that, what with people being murdered and all. As the story is told from Jamie’s perspective – keeping up the tradition of Sherlock Holmes tales – we learn to understand Charlotte better and better. The small ways in which she shows kindness, the little things she does that show Jamie she cares… It was lovely to see their friendship grow. And even though Jamie seemed hell-bent on this turning into a romantic relationship, I was happy with the two of them just being friends.

The murder case our two teenaged heroes are trying to solve felt like background decoration for a long time. But of course, at the end, everything is revealed. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction but I know what I like. And this was not it. I like when authors plant the clues in plain sight, but still hidden well enough for me to overlook them. Then, when the ending arrives, I can slap my head and say OF COURSE, it was there all along! But the solution to this particular case could not have been guessed even by the most experienced reader of murder mysteries. Because it hinges on one particular bit of information that is thrown in very late in the book and felt a bit like narrative handwavium.

When I think back on the book now, I admit I enjoyed it a lot. If not for the plot, then for the fantastic characters and their relationships. And I’m not just talking about Jamie and Charlotte here, but also Charlotte’s relationship with her Mycroft-like brother, Jamie’s relationship to his absentee father, and their friendships with other students. It was all really well done, so I feel quite forgiving that the solution to the mystery came a little out of the blue. This is one of those YA books that actually feels like YA, if you know what I mean. I love YA fiction, but I can’t stand when authors or publishers dumb down a book so it is supposedly easier for the target group to consume. I don’t know if that was the case here but it felt like this could have been a much more mature story if it hadn’t been aimed so obviously at a younger audience. Why the forced potential romance? Why the simple language? Again, I had a lot of fun reading it, but I thought there was some wasted potential here as well.

All of that said, this was entertaining enough for me to continue the series one day. I’m not in a hurry, though. Next time, I’ll make sure not to expect a brainy mystery but rather the story of highly interesting, flawed characters trying to find their place in a world that has such high expectations of them. If you like YA books and Sherlock Holmes then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you like YA books that focus more on characters than plot, then definitely go for it.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

 

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

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

FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD
by Ahmed Saadawi
translated by Jonathan Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted

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

UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED
by Sarah Gailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

From a Different Perspective: Juliet Marillier – Beautiful

Whenever I discover a new fairy tale retelling, my ears prick up. In this case, it was also my ears who got to experience said retelling because it’s an Audible Original, meaning it only exists (so far) as an audiobook. I had read one book by Juliet Marillier previously and while I didn’t love it as much as many others did, it convinced me of her storytelling abilities and I knew she had great ideas about how to tell fairy tales in a new and original way.

BEAUTIFUL
by Juliet Marillier

Published: Audible Studios, 2019
Audiobook: 7 hours 18 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: There were no mirrors in our house.

With the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon as her inspiration, Juliet Marillier weaves a magical story of a young princess’ search for her true self.
Hulde is a queen’s daughter and lives in a palace. But her life is lonely. Growing up atop the glass mountain, she knows only her violent and autocratic mother and a household of terrified servants.
Then a white bear named Rune comes to visit, and Hulde learns what kindness is.
But the queen has a plan for Hulde. When she turns 16, she will wed the most beautiful man in all the world. Hulde has never met her intended husband, and her mother refuses to explain the arrangement. Hulde becomes desperate to find out more and seeks the help of a magic mirror. Perhaps someone is coming to her rescue.
On her wedding day, Hulde’s existence is turned upside down. For the first time she leaves the glass mountain behind, setting out to be as brave as the heroines in her beloved storybook.
The journey will test Hulde to the limit. Can she overcome her fears and take control of her own life?

This audiobook comes in three parts. The first part was fantastic, the second meandered a bit, and the third was a nice, but unsurprising conclusion. That’s the reason I’m not rating this any higher because I love a book that starts out slow and the builds momentum but here, we have the exact reverse happening. Overall, I’d still recommend it but because the beginning was the best part, the story left me feeling mostly meh.

Hulde is a princess who lives in a castle without any mirrors. She is told she is beautiful and will marry the most beautiful prince in all the lands when she turns 16. Her tyrant of a mother has made arrangements. But Hulde has very little to do in her castle. Her days are spent waiting for the few months that her only friend, a polar bear, comes to stay. This white bear called Rune brings not only his friendship but also books. Hulde especially likes the stories that talk about brave heroines who go out into the world and defy the odds.

As I didn’t read any synopsis of this book before I started listening other than “a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, it took me quite a while to see what Marillier was doing here, although it’s highly obvious from the start. You see, Hulde is not your average princess but the troll queen’s daughter. That’s right – she’s the villain of the original fairy tale, the girl who is supposed to marry the enchanted prince unless he can lift his curse. Once I figured that out, I was all ablaze! Because Marillier makes Hulde so sympathetic. She is a kind young woman who yearns for friendship and love, who wants to see the world rather than just wait to be married off to a prince. She also disapproves of her mother’s terrible rule and the way she “disciplines” the servants (with a whip, usually). So who are we supposed to root for here? Obviously, the poor prince shouldn’t have to be married off to a person someone else picked for him, but we also want Hulde to be happy and we, the readers, know something she doesn’t. Her friend Rune the bear, is actually that most handsome prince who is supposed to marry her when she turns sixteen.

But Hulde is also clever and eventually figures out what’s going on. Her love for fairy tales and a magic mirror lent a helping hand and Hulde’s kindness and good nature made her do what is right. Which leads me to the second part o the story. Because the fairy tale as we know it is over and Hulde is the new troll queen. But ruling, it turns out, is more difficult than expected, especially since Hulde doesn’t want to be like her mother. She decides to seek out all the troll tribes and unify her people once more. On her way, she finds out that her mother’s lack of leadership has lead to strife within the kingdom which left many people dead, villages destroyed, and Hulde to pick up the pieces.

This was where the story started to become boring for me. Hulde was as kind a protagonist as ever but there just wasn’t much going on. The plot felt forced, the conflict seemed like it was thrown in there last-minute because otherwise, what would Hulde do for the rest of the book. She goes on a journey accompanied by two pet companions (who were adorable!) and two male trolls as a sort of advisors and protectors. While she learns many interesting things about her own people’s culture, there wasn’t anything really driving the story. Hulde became almost too good, too kind to still be interesting.

The climax felt equally predictable as the ending. Although Hulde didn’t get to marry her promised prince, there is a romantic sub-plot. But where Hulde and Rune’s friendship came to life through Marillier’s storytelling, this actual romance fell completely flat for me. Again, it was obvious from the start how things would turn out, there was no tension, there weren’t any sweet moments, everything just sort of went its predictable little way.

I didn’t find this book to be bad, I had just hoped – after that great beginning – that the author had at least some little twists in store. But the fact that I could have told you exactly how things would end after the first few minutes of part two tells you that this is not the kind of story that surprises you. If you’re okay with that, if you don’t mind seeing what’s coming, and if you enjoy a protagonist who’s maybe a bit too good to be believable, then pick this up. It was a short audiobook that retells one of my favorite fairy tales and I don’t regret having bought it. But in the future, I’ll stick with Marillier’s longer novels.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish

So Much Better on a Re-Read: Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I don’t usually write reviews when I re-read a book but this time, I simply had to. Because this is probably the only case where a book I disliked a lot turned into a book I really loved! It goes to show that what you read before you pick up a book and your current mood makes a huge difference. I think the first time I read this, I had read too many bad YA books and went into it prejudiced or at least very carefully. When my expectations weren’t met, I was annoyed. And the love story kind of threw me.
This time around, I knew what to expect, I was in the right mood, and I ended up loving it. Sure, I still have some reservations (holy crap, the dialogue is cheesy on occasion) but I was much more forgiving on those parts because everything else was just so beautiful.

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE
by Laini Taylor

Published: Little, Brown, 2011
Ebook: 420 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.
When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Karou is a young, blue-haired art student who lives in Prague. She also secretly works for a group of chimeara – human-animal hybrids or monsters or whatever you want to call them – running errands for them. Errands that mostly have her collecting teeth from different places all over the world. Through doors that turn into magical portals, she can get to far-off places quite easily and bring back teeth to her foster father Brimstone. Karou was raised by Brimstone and his monster friends but she doesn’t actually know who she is, who her biological parents are, or where she comes from. So even though she has otherworldly beauty and a best friend, she always feels sort of lost in the world. Like there’s a part of her missing.

Oh man, there is so much to love in this story. Having read Strange the Dreamer and some shorter works by Laini Taylor, I have to say that this feels very much like an early work. The beginnings of her genius are there but her lyrical language often veers into kitsch, something that doesn’t happen at all in her later books. What bothered me immensely the first time I read this was the description of people’s looks. Both Karou and Akiva are so beautiful that Laini Taylor unpacked a whole list of cliché descriptions that simply made me roll my eyes. Those parts were just as painful on the re-read as they were the first time. But at least I was prepared and tried to ignore it and concentrate on the other parts of the story.

And the story packs a punch. When black handprints appear on the portals Karou uses, she knows something isn’t right. When she is cut off from the only family she has evern known and has to fear for their lives, it’s time to act on her own. Even if that means talking to the weird (but of course, crazy beautiful) angel who almost killed her and who seems responsible for her dire situation. When Karou and Akiva do talk, the secrets that are revealed are way bigger than Karou could have expected. And that’s all I can say about that without spoiling. But there are twists within twists and they work because – despite the cheesy language – Laini Taylor makes us care for these characters first.

Karou wasn’t the easiest character to like. She feels a bit aloof what with all her secret-keeping and the magical abilities granted to her by Brimstone, in the form of wishes. Being a teenager, she only gets small wishes – just enough to make her hair blue without having to dye it, or to give a nasty ex-boyfriend an uncomfortable itch. But Karou is after the bigger wishes, the ones that can make you fly or turn invisible. And honestly, how can I fault her? I would totally get myself teleportation powers and invisibility… But it took me a while to actually like her. Maybe it’s because she is described as being so beautiful and well-liked that I couldn’t really identify with her. But the more the story progresses and the more it becomes evident that Karou has real problems to deal with, the more I liked her. Even the ridiculous insta-love is forgivable once you’ve read the entire book.

Another strange storytelling choice was the cut from Karou’s storyline to a story from the magical world of the chimaera. It is such a crass cut that totally jarred me out of the reading experience when I first read this book.  Once you have read the entire book, it does make sense, but when you go into it for the first time, it just feels weird to completely leave Karou behind and go to a different character’s story for many chapters without ever checking back with Karou. Maybe alternating chapters would have been a better idea, maybe this is the right way to tell the story, I don’t know. But I also knew to expect this and so the wanting-to-finally-get-back-to-Karou wasn’t all that bad this time. And, unlike last time, I really enjoyed this flashback because I could just enjoy it for what it was. Madrigal’s story shows us this amazing other world, the one that Karou doesn’t really know. The one where Brimstone and Issa came from.

I can’t really put my finger on why this book worked so damn well for me this time when I kind of hated it the first time around. Sure, knowing ahead of time what things I won’t like helped. But I believe it mostly had to do with my own mindset and some prejudices about YA romantic fantasties that I have since left behind me (mostly). Whatever it really was, I am so very glad I gave this series another chance because I will definitely continue reading the trilogy and anthing else Laini Taylor publishes. The good thing is, I already know her writing gets better with every book (having adored Strange the Dreamer and Lips Touch: Three Times), so I fully expect to like the second and third novels in this trilogy even more.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Shakespeare, But With Magic: Tessa Gratton – The Queens of Innis Lear

I’ve read some Shakespeare in my life and I have usually enjoyed his plays quite a lot. However, I have never read King Lear (shame on me, I know). I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies – at least when reading them instead of actually watching a play – so I thought, why not try this feminist fantasy retelling without actually knowing the source material? I still intend to read King Lear eventually but I also really liked this experiment of reading a retelling first.

THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR
by Tessa Gratton

Published: Tor, 2018
Hardcover: 575 pages
Audiobook: 26 hours 22 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7,75/10

Opening line: It begins when a wizard cleavers an island from the mainland, because the king destroyed her temple.

A kingdom at risk, a crown divided, a family drenched in blood.
The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.
The king’s three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Regan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm’s only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.
Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.

This was quite an adventure… This is, first and foremost, the story of three sisters who grew up on the island of Innis Lear, a place filled with magic but also superstition. It used to be that the magical wells were allowed to feed the land and the trees. But King Lear has done away with all that, trusting only in the stars. His youngest daughter Elia has learned to read the stars, make star charts, tell the future from stars, just like her father wants. So it seems clear that, when Lear is about to announce his successor, Elia will be his choice. But things don’t turn out that way and so begins an almost 600-page-long tale of war, love, revenge, grief, magic, and death. It was brilliant!

I loved how Tessa Gratton introduces her readers to all the characters first. There are quite a few but she took enough time to give each of them a personality. The alternating POV chapters help flesh out the characters and make each of them interesting in their own right. Elia was the easiest to like. She’s a good child who cares deeply for her ageing father. All she wants is to live quietly and happily, without ambition. Regan wants a child, more than anything, but so far has only had miscarriages and it weighs on her heavily. Of course she mostly wants a baby for herself and her husband, but she is also thinking about the line of succession. A queen who can’t promise her people an heir may not be queen for long. And Gaela lives for war. She wants battlefields and power, blood and strength, and most of all – her father’s throne. Her plan is to rule as king with her sister as queen.

You can see already that this book turns dark. Like many Shakespeare tragedies, the body count stays pretty low for a while but it might just go through the roof by the end. What starts as mere ambition or, in some characters’ minds, their given birthright, spirals into something quite more. Because in addition to these three amazing women characters, there are some equally amazing men among the cast. First and foremost is Ban the Fox, a Lord’s bastard son who used to be friends with Elia when they were children. When I read about these two, I couldn’t help but hope for a story quite different to the want that awaited me. I would have gladly read a romance book about Elia and Ban. But, alas, we are in a Shakespeare retelling and so I prepared myself for terrible things. Because whether there is love or not, as the succession gets more and more hazy, Elia has to think about alliances much more than love when it comes to picking a potential husband.

My biggest trouble with reviewing this book is that I don’t want to give anything away. You’d think that in 575 pages, there would be some things I could tell you but the thing is, this tale unravels so beautifully, more and more secrets are revealed over time, and the plot thickens constantly, even when not much seems to happen. I’ll give you a few teasers, though. There is a very tense (but fantastic) relationship between Ban and his legitimate half-brother. There is also a mystery surrounding the death of King Lear’s wife. And there are prophecies and tree magic and love and family. I think this is a book that everyone can take something different away from. For me, it was in large part about a young girl growing into her own and finding her place in the world, regardless of her father’s wishes or society’s expectations. And, I admit, I was also rooting for Ban and Elia to get together, never mind marriage alliances.

I should also mention that this is marketed as a feminist Shakespeare retelling and it absolutely is! If by “feminist” you mean it features a diverse cast of different kinds of women who get to be flawed but powerful, soft or assertive, girly or genderfluid. And if you worry that the three protagonists are the only women this tale have to offer, I can reassure you. They may not appear as much as Elia, Regan, and Gaela, but there are other women characters who are just as interesting as the Lear sisters. In flashback chapters, we get to see the girls’ mother, and we meet Ban’s mother as well, who is probably the coolest character in the entire book. I also found it funny how the men in this story keep trying to steer the tale when it’s clearly the women who hold the reigns.

Now that I’ve made this sound like the greatest book ever, let me tell you about the few things I didn’t particularly like. With a book this size, I always expect there to be a certain, slowish build up to the big climax and I really enjoyed it here, because it gave me time to get to know the characters and the various factions vying for the throne of Innis Lear. But when that explosive ending did finally arrive, it felt rushed in comparison. Suddenly, every single chapter had a Big Thing happening, people died, secrets were revealed, and it all just felt like too much at once.
Secondly, I wanted more magic! I know, I know, that’s a ridiculous thing to whine about but this book gives us such nice glimpses into a cool kind of magic (several kinds, in fact) and then it does almost nothing with it. It’s probably because I’m mostly a fantasy reader but I felt there was wasted potential on the magic front. Someone who doesn’t read as much fantasy as me will probably not mind at all.

Lastly, the writing style was amazing. I thought for the longest time that this was a debut novel and I just couldn’t believe it. Turns out that I was totally wrong and Tessa Gratton has published quite a few works before this one. I don’t know if all her books are written so well or if she’s just grown better over time but keeping me entertained and on the edge of my seat for this amount of time is no small feat. This was not a fast read and it wasn’t exactly fun because lots of dark stuff happens, but it was an incredibly rewarding one. And I’ll surely be checking out Tessa Gratton’s new “hand holding a crown” book, Lady Hotspur, which is inspired by Henry IV. Maybe this time, I’ll read the Shakespeare first and see how that goes.

MY RATING: 7,75/10 – Leaning towards excellent

A Breath-Taking Debut: Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

This book is a sneaky bastard, in the very best of ways! It was actually the first book I read during my vacation but because there’s just so much contained within these two covers, my review took a bit more time. I picked this out mostly because I loved the cover and while I hadn’t heard much about it, every review I had read was glowing. And then, like other readers before me, I fell head over heels in love with this brilliant debut.

DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE
by Joan He

Published: AW Teen, 2019
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone (for now!)
My rating: 8,5/10

Opening line: A well-conceived costume is a new identity, the father used to say as he put on his commoner’s cloak.

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.
Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.
Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?
In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.

Hesina’s father has just died and she is the only one convinced that it was not because of natural causes. Without any proof however, she takes a dangerous step and commits treason by seeking the help of a soothsayer. With the bits of information gained this way, she plans for a trial to prove her father was murdered and to find out who the killer was. For that, she needs the support of a convicted criminal but also lots of help from her brother and her two adopted siblings.

This book starts out like your standard YA fantasy fare. The Chinese-inspired setting is intriguing, there is a sort of magic system to discover – although magic in the form of soothsayers has been outlawed for many years – and there’s a whole fictional country’s history to learn about. So I liked the book right from the start. But then Joan He slowly reeled me in with new ideas, secrets within secrets, tangled plot strings, and characters that are so amazing and come in all shades of morally grey, by about a third of the book, I absolutely loved it!

I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because discovering all the twists and turns for yourself is part of what makes the reading experience so great. But the story has a lot more to offer than just a great plot. Hesina makes for a phenomenal protagonist. She is a good person at heart and deep down, she disagrees with the rule that says all soothsayers must be killed because they were used for evil during the war. She sees them as people but she is unable to state that opinion because that would get her executed as well. Then there’s the fact that she is to become queen and the responsibility weighs heavy on her. Add to that the strained relationship with her brother Sanjing, and the even worse relationship between him and their adopted brother Caiyan. While Hesina is trying to find her father’s killer and keep her treasonous actions and thoughts secret, strange things happen at Yan’s borders and it looks like the new queen will also have her hands full preventing a war.

I can’t really explain to you why this book worked so well or which aspects convinced me of its brilliance first, because it all kind of snuck up on me. I started as an interested yet somewhat distant reader, then a hundred pages later I wanted to strangle certain characters, I gaspedin shock at other characters’ betrayals, I marveled at the wonders this world holds, and I wanted Hesina so very, very badly to be okay! Let me just give that girl a hug. And I can’t put my finger on how or when that happened, but by the end, I was so damn into this story that I still can’t believe the author wasn’t immediately asked to write a sequel or twelve.

For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with how well Joan He juggled the various aspects of this book. I mentioned great world building before but I haven’t told you that most of it is worked organically into the plot. There are no expositions, no characters explaining to others what they should already know. The picture we have of Yan and its history simply grows clearer and clearer the more we read. It helps that every chapter begins with quotes by One of the Eleven and Two of the Eleven – two of the heroes who saved the kingdom and created a system for society that appears like a pretty solid democracy. I say “appeared” because we all know no utopia is actually a utopia and while Yan’s political system is mostly quite fair, it has its pitfalls.

“The masses may be misguided, but their hearts are true.”

Even without the added bonus of a rich history, Yan was such an intriguing place to discover. And since we see it through Hesina’s eyes, we also understand that everything is political. Whether it’s the people’s fear of and hatred for soothsayers or the way they strictly adhere to the rules set by the Eleven, I loved every aspect of it. Not because it’s necessarily a perfect, happy kingdom but because it felt so realistic! Humans can be shitty and full of prejudices but that doesn’t mean they are all bad people. Hesina learns this lesson over and over again as she navigates the court and has to make the most difficult decisions. She also has to learn that sometimes the ones you mistrust are actually on your side while a trusted friend may be working against you… I’m not saying that is the case here but, yeah, it totally is the case and you still won’t be able to guess who is who. That’s probably what made the many twists so much more painful.

I also enjoyed the writing style. I’m not sure if this is marketed as YA but I thought the style definitely had that quality where the text just seems to flow, letting you concentrate completely on the images in your mind. There is also a bit of romance, although I appreciated immensely that it’s never the focus – Hesina’s got much more important stuff to deal with – but it evolved throughout the story almost as a side note. And it felt all the more real and important for that. The same goes for the relationships between Hesina and her remaining family: her seemingly cold-hearted mother, her twin siblings, and her blood brother. Each of these characters is a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning and Hesina’s relationship to each of them grows. That is such a rare thing in any kind of book, but especially in YA, where side characters are often rather bland and the focus lies more on the protagonist and the love interest(s).

“What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good Kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.”

By the end of the book, Hesina has been through a cascade of ever more dangerous and harrowing situations, she has dealt with moral dilemmas, and she has to come to terms with the truth about her own beliefs and her country’s past. And while I got some satisfaction out of this story and it definitely has a finished story arc, quite a few questions remain unanswered and many problems unsolved. When I closed this book I let out a long breath and immediately googled when the sequel would come out. Alas, none is scheduled just yet. The author has plans to write one if the publishers deem the first book a big enough success. So I urge all of you to pick up this book and go on that emotional journey with Hesina because (a) it’s awesome and (b) I really need a second book!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!