A Messy, Trope-Ridden YA Novel: Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

There are books you love and books you hate, and then there are books that are so mediocre, that offer so little to either rant or rave about that you just… nothing them. This is one such book. The more I think about it, the more I can put into words what’s wrong with it but while I read it, I just noticed that I didn’t  care about anything in it. The characters, the plot, the setting… nothing.

EYES LIKE STARS
by Lisa Mantchev

Published by: Square Fish, 2009
Paperback: 352 pages
Series: Théâtre Illuminata #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First line: The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.

The fantastic first novel in Lisa Mantchev’s Theatre Illuminata trilogy
Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the characters of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. The actors are bound to the Théâtre by The Book, an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of the actors, but they are her family. And she is about to lose them all because The Book has been threatened, and along with it the Théâtre. It’s the only home Bertie has ever known, and she has to find a way to save it. But first, there’s the small problem of two handsome men, both vying for her attention. Nate, a dashing pirate who will do anything to protect Bertie, and Ariel, a seductive air spirit. The course of true love never did run smooth. . . .
With Eyes LIke Stars, Lisa Mantchev has written a debut novel that is dramatic, romantic, and witty, with an irresistible and irreverent cast of characters who are sure to enchant the audience.

I thought I could begin this review the way the author began this book. By throwing you right in without any information whatsoever, with nothing making sense, and with a girl dying her hair blue. But I don’t want to be that kind of person. So I’ll just tell you how I experienced this strange book that I still don’t know how to classify. Is it YA? Is it Middle Grade? Does it matter?

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, called Bertie, lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, a place where all characters from all Shakespeare plays reside and live to play their part over and over again. Their plays are all collected in The Book, a mysterious tome that is protected by the Theatre Manager. Bertie’s friends (if you can call them that) are the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they are obviously only there for comic relief, I quite liked them and their silly antics. Other characters include Ariel, the air spirit from The Tempest, Nate, a dashing pirate who is obviously in love with Bertie, and the Stage Manager as well as the heads of the Properties, Scenery and Costume Departments.

There is very little plot in this book but the basic premise is that Bertie is a troublemaker and faces explusion from the Theatre. If she wants to stay in the only home she’s ever known, she needs to prove that she can make an invaluable contribution. Her plan is to restage Hamlet in ancient Egypt. At the same time, Ariel is constantly flirting with her and trying to manipulate  her to set him free – because, as it turns out, all those characters are trapped inside the Theatre and have to play when management says so. That made Ariel, who is supposed to be the bad boy in an unnecessary and lifeless love triangle, the most sympathetic character to me. I mean, who wants to be enslaved? Of course he’s going to try everything to gain his freedom! And one of his attempts brings down chaos  on the Theatre. There is also a weird sub-plot about a magical amulet that Nate gives Bertie. And Ophelia randomly walks around and tries to drown herself in puddles. It all felt very contrived.

Bertie herself, our super special protagonist of the blue hair, was incredibly unlikable. Not only is it true that she makes trouble in the Theatre and I would totally have kicked her out as well had I been the Theatre Manager, but she is also just rude and mean to every single person around her. Nate obviously loves her, she leads him on, but then turns around and goes all googoo for Ariel because he’s pretty. Only to change her mind a few chapters later and treat Ariel like shit. Bertie is an entitled, mean girl who wants everyone’s attention, contributes nothing, and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings but her own. What a bitch!

But I have no problem with antiheroes in general. If the rest of the book had made any kind of sense, I would have been there for it. A magical theater sounds like so much fun and I don’t always need a magic system that makes perfect sense. But in the Théâtre Illuminata, nothing makes sense. Scene changes happen automatically (by magic), so why is there even a scenery department? And there also doesn’t seem to be a crew, only players and managers – who does the costume manager manage? She doesn’t have any workers.
Another thing that bothered me about the setting was the time period. What time does this take place in? Characters mostly talk very old-timey, which may be attributed to them being Shakespeare characters, but the managers aren’t actors and they can technically leave the theatre whenever they want. Then suddenly the fairies will say something utterly modern, making references to things they can’t possibly know if they’ve never been out of the theatre. The same goes for Bertie, who orders a quadruple shot cappucchino (she doesn’t outright say “from Starbucks” but it felt like a line from a contemprary teen movie). But they also talk about horse-drawn carriages and people wearing monocles? It just left me confused and annoyed!

Here are some examples (emphasis mine):

“It’s rather like a spa,” Peaseblossom said, trying to rassure her from the safety of the button box.
(How would a fairy trapped inside a magical theatre know what a spa is?!)

Or take this:

“Did someone call for mummification?” Moth appeared, armed with a buttonhook. “We’ll prepare you for eternal slumber, internal organs removed and body wrapped in gauze, for one low, low price!”
“But wait” Cobweb added. “If you act in the next five minutes-”
(So fairies apparently also watch TV commercials, which makes the time period even hazier and the equipment of the old-timey theatre even more questionable.)

As for the forced love triangle, there was no chemistry between anyone. I did like Nate because all he does is look out for Bertie and try to protect her (not that she appreciates it). The bad boy Ariel was more enticing as a characters – because  unlike Nate, he has a personality and agency, he wants his freedom! Nate just wants Bertie. – but Bertie’s reaction to both boys changed so frequently and never made much sense. So I didn’t care if she ends up with either of them and I would recommend they both find themselves a kinder person to fall in love with. I mean, who kisses a guy, then literally enslaves him, then changes her mind again and again. And while she’s messing around with Ariel, she still kind of wants Nate’s attention as well. Again: Antiheroes are okay if their story is good, but I just didn’t understand Bertie and I really don’t like people like her who play with others’ feelings for their own personal amusement.

Oh yes, and let’s not forget another sub-plot which is probably going to be the story arc for the entire trilogy: How Bertie Came To The Theatre. Bertie has always lived there but she has no idea who her parents are or where she actually came from. Some of this is revealed at the end of the book but, as I cared nothing about Bertie or most of the other characters, the revelation fell flat. There was no emotional impact because there was never any build-up. Stuff just happens all the time, most of the book is chaos, but nothing ever got to me. It’s not even that I hated the story, I just really, really didn’t care. Which is probably worse than a book I actively hate because at least hate is an emotion and this book made me feel nothing.

The best thing I can say about this is that, because the book is pretty much made of dialogue, it’s a very quick read. There are random sequences that are written as stage plays for some reason, but only in the first third of the book. That was a nice idea but it felt like the author had no plan whatsoever for this book and just wrote whatever popped into her mind at the time.
For the next book, there will probably be a quest for Bertie (getting someone out of trouble for which she is responsible in the first place) and of course she wantsto find out more about her heritage. As I don’t care about Bertie or the others and didn’t find anything particularly appealing in the world or setting (whenever and wherever that may be), I won’t continue reading this trilogy. It’s a shame because the covers are really pretty.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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

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

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Light and Easy Fantasy: Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns

Here is one of this year’s YA fantasy books that have been surrounded by enormous hype. I understand completely that this cover makes people excited (I am one of them, after all), but a pretty cover does not make a great book. So I picked this up for the N.E.W.T.s Readathon to find out for myself if the content is a gorgeous as the packaging. The verdict is… not bad, but definitely not worthy of the hype.

SORCERY OF THORNS
by Margaret Rogerson

Published by: Margaret K. McElderberry Books, 2019
Hardback: 456 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: Night fell as death rode into the Great Library of Summershall.

All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.
Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.
As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.

Elisabeth Scrivener has been left at the Great Library of Summershall as an orphaned baby and grown up surrounded by magical tomes and the wardens who protect them. Her ambition is to become a warden herself one day, just like the Director, her mentor/mother-figure. Elisabeth also knows sorcery is evil (that’s why the keep the dangerous magical books in chains and cages) and sorcerers are bad. When a new book arrives at the Library, and Elisabeth sees her first magister (read: sorcerer), things are set in motion that will rip her out of her life and into a world of magic, politics, and danger. Lots of danger!

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn takes  Elisabeth to the city to be tried. On the way, Elisabeth learns a lot more about the world she lives in and the place sorcerers occupy in it. There are demon servants, certain properties of magical books, a whole history of sorcerers on whose shoulders the society has been built. And of course there is Nathaniel, at the same time reserved and cocky. The fact that he’s the romantic interest is obvious from the start and I was happy to go along with that, expecting to learn more of his character and the world he’s grown up in.

Which leads me to my two big problems with this book. The world building is so shallow, everything there is to learn about it is told in a few chapters. Sure, there are hints here and there, that there could be more to certain stories of the past, but they are never expanded upon. The same goes for the characters, unfortunately. Elisabeth is just your standard YA fantasy heroine. She’s pretty and brave and clever. Her sole defining characteristic at the beginning seems to be her dream of becoming a warden. She leaves that dream behind so fast, you’ll miss it if you blink. And then she is basically a shell without hopes, dreams, or desires – other than making out with Nathaniel. That is such a shame. I was hoping for more of a proactive, actually smart protagonist like in A Curse so Dark and Lonely . But that still seems to be the exception.

Nathaniel does get some backstory and while I did like the idea of what happened to him, the way it is told was just so… underwhelming. Elisabeth is told the whole tragic truth in a single conversation, on one single page. It had no emotional impact for me, because it was just executed so badly.

Now what I did like about the story were the action scenes and a side character named Silas. In fact, Silas carried the entire book. In my opinion, if he had been the protagonist and this would have been an excellent book, not just an okay one. But at least he was there and he was amazing and he gave the story something to be emotional about. The romance – which should have been the thing to give me all the feels – was also only okay. I don’t want to say it was badly done, but if you make it that obvious who’s going to fall for whom, then there has to be something extra to keep me interested. There wasn’t any tension between Elisabeth and Nathaniel, they didn’t have particularly engaging dialogue, and the scenes where they do get closer to each other didn’t give me butterflies. That may just be me.

The plot was also nothing groundbreaking. It was a fun adventure story, with magic and evil books, demons and some great fight scenes, but I felt that the ending was artificially drawn out. Elisabeth figures out pretty quickly – and through rather stupid coincidences – what’s going on, who the villain is and approximately what he’s planning. The stopping of the plan is what takes up nearly half of the book, and because the suspense was already gone, it was precisely this last part of the book that dragged for me.

There is nothing especially bad about the novel or the writing style. But there’s nothing very great about it either. All things considered, this wasn’t a noteworthy book but it was fun and I think, with some work and deeper characterisation and world-building, the author could deliver a really good book next.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

A Frogged Up Fairy Tale: Nancy Springer – Fair Peril

I bought this book when I saw that it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award – an award that picks books just to my liking. Sometimes, I prefer the nominees to the winners, but in general, it’s a literary award I trust. Well, I was bound to come across a not-so-good book eventually and it appears that Nancy Springer’s “feminist” retelling of the Frog Prince was it.

FAIR PERIL
by Nancy Springer

Published by: Avon Books, 1996
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: “Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman,” Buffy Murphy declaimed to the trees, “whose slime-loving, shigella-kissing, bung hole of a husband dumped her themonth after their twentieth wedding anniversary.”

Divorced, overweight Buffy Murphy is not a happy camper. One April afternoon, she walks into the woods . . . and meets a talking bullfrog. He asks her to kiss him so he can transform back into his princely self. This being modern-day Pennsylvania, Buffy figures she’s better off with a talking amphibian than a cheating husband, so she takes him home. The fun really starts when her rebellious teenage daughter, Emily, kisses him.
Suddenly, Emily and her handsome prince have vanished into the land of Fair Peril, an enchanted realm that can only be accessed through a portal in the local mall. Aided by a gay librarian named LeeVon and hindered by her fairy-godmother-in-law, Fay, Buffy shuttles back and forth between the real world and Fair Peril. Does Emily really want to be rescued, or does she just need someone to love her? It’s up to Buffy to figure out the key to reclaiming her daughter—and maybe herself, as well.

Buffy is a middle-aged woman who has just been left by her husband of 20 years because he found someone younger and prettier. So Buffy is bitter. Very bitter. So bitter, in fact, that I disliked her from the first moment. When she comes across a talking frog, she is only about half as shocked as she should be and takes it home. This enchanted frog, Prince Adamus, wants her to kiss him so he can become human again. But Buffy won’t hear of it. Instead, she prefers to continue wallowing in self-pity, shoving unhealthy crap into herself, complaining that she got fat  (reading about her eating habits, I wonder how that happened), and hating men.

Although the embittered comments become less frequent as the book progresses, I found it really horrible just how man-hating this story started out. According to Buffy, pretty much all men are the same. The way she thinks of them, they are less than human, they all act only on their urges, women are prized objects (also not humans) to them, and her husband left her only because she got fat and had a mind of her own… Honestly, if Buffy’s personality was the way it was described in this book during her marriage, I can’t even fault the guy for leaving. Holy shit, I wouldn’t want to live with someone that toxic and negative.

My reading of this story is that Buffy is an overdrawn character on purpose. Because all the other characters, without exception, are also overdrawn bad stereotypes. Buffy’s ex-husband is a despicable low-life whose only reaction to his daughter missing (with an older boy, no less) is “well, I like them young, too”. Emily, the daughter in question is shown as a vapid young thing who cares only about shopping and looking pretty. Prince Adamus has slightly more personality. Of course, he is an arrogant fairy tale prince who also thinks he is entitled to any woman’s love just because. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the new trophy wife. She is young and pretty and only married the guy for his money. She even says that outright at one point.

The only character I really liked was Buffy’s gay friend LeeVon. Not only was he kind and multi-layered and simply a good friend, he also developed throughout the story, even though he’s not the main chracter. To be fair, Emily also shows that there’s more to her than a credit card and fashion style, but not much more. While Buffy definitely grows into a slightly more bearable person by the end, I never really liked her. People who are hateful and bitter because their own actions have consequencees they don’t like are just not my cup of tea. I know such people exist in real life and I’m sure they don’t have it easy, but they are not the sort of people I surround myself with if I can help it.

So despite disliking almost all the characters, I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to see how Nancy Springer tackles the Frog Prince fairy tale. About halfway through the book is where it gets really magical. Buffy, Emily, LeeVon and occasionally even Buffy’s ex-husband Prentis enter the realm of Fair Peril, a world that exists side by side with ours but definitely doesn’t adhere to our rules of physics (or any other rules). I quite liked how Fair Peril and our world overlapped, I liked the feeling that magic was wild and didn’t follow rules. So no magic system, nothing that you can make sense of, just untamed imagination.

The writing style was sadly also not for me. The author sometimes described things, then turned Buffy’s inner dialogue into weird rhymes or lines that could have been lifted out of nursery songs… it felt strangely childish and out of place and made Buffy seem like a really silly person even though I think I was supposed to take her seriously. I also found the reactions to a talking frog (at a certain point a very oversized frog) incredibly weird. Emily is shocked when she first sees Adamus and hears him talk – so far, so understandable. But she gets over that impossibility really quickly and just goes with it. Other characters who eventually meet a frog, talking, oversized, sometimes even clothed, also react way too mildly for my taste. On the other hand, Buffy lands herself in an institution for (dumb that she is) telling a police officer that she is looking for her talking frog who is a prince in disguise…
Add to the list of things that don’t make sense Emily’s age. I think she is described as being 16-ish. A teenager with her own car has to be at least 16, but then she has a birthday party where she behaves more like a 10-year-old. But her behaviour changes so drastically with every scene she’s in that it was impossible to place her, age-wise. That kind of ruins the growth she goes through because I never had a clear image of who she was before.

This was supposed to be a feminist retelling of a fairy tale but not only did I hate all the women and most men in this story, I don’t think it’s a feminist thing to paint all people of a certain gender as their worst stereotype. It also didn’t help that Buffy clearly hated herself as much as she hated men. I don’t know how many times she mentioned how fat she was, how “unlovely” her legs were, how her outfits are shit, how she looks bad, etc. etc. Having low self-confidence is one thing, but constantly putting yourself down for things you can easily change (don’t like your legs unshaved? Go shave them! Want to lose a little bit of weight? Try not eating three microwaved, fatty meals every day! Hate your clothes? Go get yourself something that makes you feel pretty, for gods sake!). Buffy is in this spiral of self-hate and generally despises her situation but she’s not willing to do anything to better her situation. It’s like needing to pee but not being willing to get up and go to the bathroom, instead just sitting there, whining to everyone that you really have to pee and how unfair the world is for not beaming you to a toilet… That’s a stupid analogy, but I hope you know what I mean.

The story itself does get better in the second half and the ending is even halfway decent, putting more focus on the mother-daughter relationship than on kissing frogs or hating men. But I have to say, this really put me off picking up other books by Nancy Springer. I give every author at least a second chance, but judging by this book, Springer’s chance will not come any time soon.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Wonderland Without the Wonder: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts

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

QUEEN OF HEARTS
by Colleen Oakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Not good

Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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Cute but unoriginal: Alethea Kontis – Trixter

I have many feelings about Alethea Kontis’ Woodcutter Sisters series. The first two books were adorable, enchanting, and just total feel-good reads. The third book was a big mess. Which is probably why the author’s contract for the rest of the series didn’t get renewed and she started writing spin-off adventures about the Woodcutter’s young brother Trix. This book is a cute middle grade adventure that didn’t offer many new things and is rather weak, but still kind of nice. You know… for a lazy afternoon when you don’t know what else to read.

trixterTRIXTER
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Alethea Kontis, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Trix Adventures #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Trix Woodcutter ignored the twinges in his belly and the ache in his heart as he raced across the meadow.

Trix Woodcutter is the long prophesied Boy Who Talks to Animals. He’s also a foundling prankster scamp who places his family under a sleeping spell so that he can run away from home. Compelled by a vision of his dead birthmother, Trix departs on the eve of a Great Catastrophe, only to find himself caught in the maelstrom. Armed with little more than his wits and the wisdom inherent in all fey-blooded youth, Trix confronts a legendary Animal King, faces off against a ghostly feline, rescues a damsel in distress, and discovers more about himself than he ever wished to know.

And this adventure is only the beginning.

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Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

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Jenny Moyer – Flashfall

You know how some books take a while got get going? How a boring or difficult beginning can be hard to read but then the pay-off makes it all worthwile? This is the opposite kind of book. Here, the beginning was the best part, and then it all falls into pieces and gets worse and worse. This will be a rather long review.

flashfallFLASHFALL
by Jenny Moyer

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2016
Hardback: 342 pages
Series: Flashfall #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: Caves make good hiding places.

Orion is a Subpar, expected to mine the tunnels of Outpost Five, near the deadly flash curtain. For generations, her people have chased cirium—the only element that can shield humanity from the curtain’s radioactive particles. She and her caving partner, Dram work the most treacherous tunnel, fighting past flash bats and tunnel gulls, in hopes of mining enough cirium to earn their way into the protected city.
But when newcomers arrive at Outpost Five, Orion uncovers disturbing revelations that make her question everything she thought she knew about life on both sides of the cirium shield. As conditions at the outpost grow increasingly dangerous, it’s up to Orion to forge a way past the flashfall, beyond all boundaries, beyond the world as she knows it.

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Orion and Dram are best friends and cavers. They live in Outpost 5 and their job is to go into a cave and mine for cirium, a substance that is used by Congress in the protected city of Alara for a protective barrier against the flash curtain. If that sounds convoluted and clichéd, that’s because it is. Don’t expect any of this to make sense. However, good-natured as I am, I decided to just roll with it and enjoy the story on a different level.

Orion, our protagonist, is your typical YA heroine, and she is also quite obviously in love with her best friend Dram. They make a kick-ass team and their trips into Cave Nine were thrilling to read. If the author had stuck with that idea and run with it, this could have been a great YA book. But Jenny Moyer apparently didn’t know how to spread out her ideas (or other people’s ideas) and threw in everything and the kitchen sink, without regard for the plot or world building. While the beginning of the book is well-paced, introducing the progatonists and some side characters, there came a point where everything went to shit.

For conflict, Orion has to get into trouble, and I am totally okay with that because that’s what makes great stories. But her and Dram get transported, imprisoned, escape, get imprisoned again, sent somewhere else, escape to a new place, come back, get caught again – so many times and in such quick succession that any dangerous situation feels utterly ridiculous after a while. There also isn’t any sense of real danger because they conveniently get saved by some poor schmuck sacrificing themselves for them.

This actually bothered me a lot. At first, side characters who got some introduction blindly sacrifice themselves for these two teenagers without any hint of their motives. Later, the author just didn’t care anymore and randomly introduced new characters only to kill them off a few pages later so Orion can survive. In some cases, the sacrifice is relatable, but I got the feeling that the author wanted Orion so very much to be Katniss, with the same level of fame and respect from a rebellion that doesn’t even exist in Flashfall. But Orion is really not that special and, much more importantly, her story isn’t broadcast across the nation so nobody knows that she’s sort of uprising. All she does is break a sign. Why should random people – ones she’s only just met – blindly walk into death for her? And the amount of times that happens is just mind-boggling. It’s cheap and it’s bad writing and it weakens the entire story.

Another aspect that showed bad plotting was how convenient things were. Not just character deaths but other things as well. Like a side character is introduced only to give one vital piece of information to Orion and then never be mentioned again (or die in the next chapter). The same goes for tricky situations. They get out of them so easily and so quickly. Every plan immediately works, and if it doesn’t, just throw a side character into their death. Either way, the action scenes rarely took more than a page or two which gave the whole story a weird sense of time passing.

What makes things worse is the terrible world building. Where do I start? Oh, I know, let’s start with the map. I love maps in books because they usually give you a bit of additional information for the story and help you navigate an invented world in your mind while you’re reading. Not so in Flashfall. If anything, the map made things even harder to understand. To be fair, if all the artist had to go on was the descriptions in the book, there really wasn’t anthing to be done. Look here (click to biggify):

I wasn’t the only person who had trouble with this map or the descriptions in the book. Because the working of this world is never really explained, I tried to piece it together myself. But none of it made any sense! The flash curtain is apparently this radioactive wall of fog that kills regular humans, called Normals. Subpars, like Orion and Dram, can withstand the radiaton. They live in Outpost 5, I’m assuming that dividing line is the flash curtain – and the privileged Normals live in the city of Alara protected by that weird dome-like wall thingy. At least I think that’s what it is. However, there are also Normals living in Orion’s outpost – WTF? Why don’t they get sick? What is even the point of having them there if they can’t go down into the caves to mine for cirium? Oh yeah, and cirium is needed constantly for that protection dome/wall… I have no idea why. If there’s already a wall why would they need more cirium? As it turns out, the rich people are evil (who could have seen that coming?) and use cirium for other stuff as well. No spoilers although, trust me, you wouldn’t mind anyway.

As I mentioned before, Orion and Dram “visit” lots of other places as well, some Outposts, some cordons, although the main difference seems to be the vicinity to the flash curtain. The vague and really cheap explanations as to why people are in the cordons at all didn’t help with the world building either. It appears the elite is also really stupid if their secret evil plan is doing what they’re doing. To make things more confusing, we later find out a bit more about Alara and its inhabitants. Like that they have drones and helicopters. Which don’t go with the set-up of the world AT ALL. Everything is jarring, nothing fits together, even distances don’t make sense. The speed at which Orion travels between cordons makes it feel like distances on the map aren’t very far apart. But that doesn’t go with the descriptions of the caves’ vastness.

Very little thought went into the world building. The most effort was probably put into substitute curse words which also don’t make sense. People curse with “fire” or “flash me” – at least “flash me” goes with the general world. The flash curtain is a menace, a danger, so using it as a curse is fine. But why would anybody curse with “fire” ? Fire doesn’t have special meaning in this story, it’s not like fires have to be avoided at all costs because cirium is super flammable or anything. I have no idea where it comes from and it threw me out of the story every time it came up.

But the saddest part was the plot. As I said, it started off so well. I didn’t expect a great work of literature here, just some fun adventure with a romance thrown in or something.  And at the start, the book really showed potential. We see Dram and Orion in action doing their job and being damn good at it, we meet their families and friends, the way they live. They go into cave nine, meet some dangers and get out of them by themselves and by being a great team. However, that seems to have been the only consistent idea the author had, because once the world gets opened up and she tries to show us the bigger picture, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is no plan. The world makes no sense, Orion’s fame makes no sense, the mindless idiots dying for her make no sense. Throw in some magical people – Conjurors – who can manipulate the elements, throw in weird sub-societies in different outposts and cordons, incredibly convenient hints for the protagonists to find, really lame plot twists and a story that, in terms of character development and world building leaves you exactly where you started and you’ve got a hot mess named Flashfall.

In the end, I have more questions than answers. What even is the flash curtain? Why is it a straight line on the map? Why do Normals live with Subpars in the outposts if Normals aren’t resistent to the radiation? Why would anyone work for the protected elite in the first place? How does the world at large work? Why is there magic, why are the powerful people trying to stop Conjurers from using it? Why would they not let scientists work on a cure or a protection against radiation sickness? None of it makes sense. What’s even the point of having outposts and cordons, especially if some of them seem designed only to kill people in ridiculous ways? Why would a city even be built that close to the Flash curtain if it’s such a straight, nicely contained line? Why has Orion never seen the sky? If everything’s so full of clouds and radiation, how do the Normals even survive? What the hell is any of this about???

The ending isn’t really any better. Things work out super-conveniently for Orion again and we get an incredibly cheese last scene but there wasn’t even an attempt to make readers want to read the next book in the series. I can only assume that the many favorable reviews were written by people who still have hope that it gets better, that all those questions are answered in the sequels. I do not have that hope and I feel no need at all to continue torturing myself with a series that is so self-indulgent, so unfocused, and by an author who so clearly doesn’t have a plan.

For a well-executed romance and the nice beginning I’m giving this a handful of points. For starting well and leaving me angry, it’s not a big handful.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

P.S.: If anyone has read this and can explain any of the things that were unclear to me, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I am genuinely interested if it was just me being an idiot while reading.

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