Still Mostly Meh: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

Ages ago, I read the first Foundation book because it’s a sci-fi classic and on all the “Best SF” lists and all that other jazz. I found it okay then but now that the book series is being turned into a TV show, I wanted to both refresh my memory and finally continue the series. Turns out, my second reading of Foundation was exactly as middling as the first one. I did continue and read the second book, though, and that experience – although a teensy bit better – was similarly meh.

FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1951
eBook:
240 pages
Series:
Foundation #2
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: The Galactic Empire Was Falling.

WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST ALL-TIME SERIES

The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The First Foundation survived two centuries of barbarism as the once-mighty Galactic Empire descended into chaos. Now it mist prepare for war against the remnants of the Empire as the Imperial fleet advances on their planet, Terminus.

Hari Seldon predicted this war; he even prepared his Foundation for it. But he couldn’t foresee the birth of the mutant Mule. In possession of a power which reduces fearsome opposition to devoted slaves, the Mule poses a terrible threat to Seldon’s Foundation.

This book is comprised of two stories. The first one is simply a continuation of what was done in the first book – namely a Seldon Crisis which is resolved by one dude being slightly cleverer than another dude, and also “fate”. Because Hari Seldon predicted the various crises the Foundation would encounter, and he also predicted that by the laws of psychohistory the Foundation has a super high chance of surpassing all those obstacles, there’s not really all that much excitement left. We know ahead of time the Foundation will continue to strive, no matter what kind of problem comes up next. So by creating Hari Seldon, Asimov made it harder for himself to build up tension.

The second, much longer, part of this book is called “The Mule” and it can almost be called a proper story. There’s multiple character POVs, we travel different parts of the galaxy, there’s a big threat to the Foundation, and there’s some new political stuff coming up. Again, a big problem for me was the utter lack of tension throughout the whole story. I knew the Foundation would come out on top because that’s the entire point of this series. So why should I worry that a mysterious conquerer who calls himself The Mule is apparently defeating Foundation forces left and right?

Asimov’s characters are still as bland and interchangeable as in the first book. It literally doesn’t matter who is talking to whom. You could literally exchange the people with talking cats and it wouldn’t change a thing about the story (well, it would make it more awesome). Nobody has a personality because this is not the kind of book that’s actually trying to tell a riveting story or make its readers feel empathy for its characters. It’s a vessel for ideas and, in my opinion, those ideas were transported well enough in the first book. I don’t need a second book to tell me the exact same ideas, slightly differently.
But – color me surprised – one of those bland characters is a woman! Who gets to speak!! And who even has a vital role in the tale!!! Never mind all the microaggressions, the sexist remarks, the obvious disregard for women in general, at least we have proof that there are women in Asimov’s galaxy. Despite this revolutionary development, I found that the whole Mule story dragged along unnecessarily and the twist ending was super obvious and lacked any impact whatsoever. Again, Asimov is his own worst enemy because of course the “good guys” win and the Foundation is safe.

Speaking of “good guys” – I find the entire premise of this series quite disturbing. When it was all about preserving humanity’s knowledge, it was one thing. But what it has always really been about is power and colonization and gaining control over everything through a massive galactic empire. Why the hell should I root for that?

I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many of the so-called science fiction classics didn’t age well. Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is still pretty cool, and the Foundation series doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of sfnal ideas (so far), but everything that surrounds it, every tiny little bit of worldbuilding or character work I could find in this rather mediocre story is really rather startling in its misogyny, blind love for the military and colonization, hunger for power for power’s sake, and totally casual hate towards neurodiverse people.

This book also makes me wonder at this so-called golden age of science-fiction. Sure, many of the ideas that came up at the time must have felt new and exciting, but didn’t people also care about storytelling? Because, as interesting as certain ideas may be, they are rather worthless if the story about them sucks. Having just re-read the first Foundation book and then going straight into this one, I did notice that Asimov’s writing style has evolved, although he continues to do the same thing over and over again, just slightly better told. At least now we get some descriptions of surroundings, of how a given planet works, instead of just two men standing in a room trying to outsmart each other.

I’m still going to read the third Foundation book just so I have finished what was then The Foundation Trilogy but I very much doubt I’ll check out the rest of the series. This trip to a distant past that many people seem to glorify is just not for me.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Utterly meh!

Magic, Egypt, and Bowler Hats: P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn

P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.

King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

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This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

Apparently, This is a Classic: Susan Cooper – The Dark Is Rising

Last year, I decided to catch up on some classic SFF that I hadn’t read yet because it’s so easy to get swept away by new publications. I started Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence and I found the first book quite nice. Not groundbreaking, but fun enough. The second book is a Newberry Medal winner and appears on all the lists of best fantasy ever so I had high expectations. Having read it, I honestly don’t know if me and all those other people have read the same book.

THE DARK IS RISING
by Susan Cooper

Published: Puffin, 1973
eBook: 272 pages
Series: The Dark is Rising #2
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him. 

This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

It’s Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will’s eleventh birthday. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the familiar countryside around him. This will be a birthday like no other. Will discovers that he has the power of the Old Ones, and that he must embark on a quest to vanquish the terrifyingly evil magic of the Dark.

The second novel in Susan Cooper’s highly acclaimed Dark is Rising sequence.

Will Stanton is turning eleven just a few days before Christmas and strange things are happening. Birds behave weirdly, his wish for snow seems to be coming true, even though snow doesn’t usually stick around in his home town, and a homeless man appears to be following him around.
It doesn’t take long for Will (and us readers) to find out that Will is an Old One, a person involved in the epic battle between the Light and the Dark. No further details are given because I guess labeling things “good” and “evil” is enough. Will meets Merriman – whom we know from the first book – and is taught a little bit of the awesome powers he now possesses, such as making a fire out of nothing or talking with other Old Ones telepathically. Merrimen does not, however, tell Will not to use those powers because it draws the attention of the Dark… Which just seems like a cruel joke, considering any 11-year-old with the sudden power to make a fire would immediately try that power on his way home through the snow.
So Will does, gets into danger, and gets saved by Merriman who then gives  this vital bit of information to Will. And sadly, that whole introductory part of the book tells you exactly how the rest of it will go.

Will is the Sign-Seeker and he is entrusted with a quest by Merriman and the Lady and some other Old Ones, who happen to be Will’s neighbours. Six signs, shaped like a circle with a cross in the middle have to be found and put together. Again, that’s all they tell the boy. No clue as to where to start, what to do, who to talk to, how to use his powers to help him on this quest… not even any information on why the signs are important or what this battle between Light and Dark is all about. Nothing in this book is ever properly explained and therefore, nothing really makes sense. There are these signs and they get cold when evil is around and Will has to protect them somehow? He also gets this ancient book to read which conveniently pours all the knowledge he nees magically into his brain (forgetting that some of it might be interesting to the readers as well) but which doesn’t change anything about Will’s behaviour, powers, or the way he continues on his quest.

About that qBildergebnis für the dark is rising cooperuest: it may say that Will has to “seek” these magical signs but Will  doesn’t actually do anything in this entire book. Will comes across people who either straight up give him one of the signs or at least tell him exactly what to do to get to it. Will gets in danger occasionaly but those scenes also fell flat because he is immediately rescued by a convenient other Old One (they pop out of the ground whenever the plot requires it). So any tension there might have been is taken out by the author. Will is the most passive protagonist I’ve read in a long time and I don’t see why I should like him. There’s nothing about him to like (or dislike, for that matter). He is just a blank human-shaped something that does what he’s told by complete strangers who say they are the Light and he’s one of them and then he collects signs on his belt and hopes someone will save his ass when the Dark gets too close to him. Let me tell you, this was the opposite of engaging and exciting.

The part I enjoyed the most was actually the non-fantasy aspects. Will’s family is huge and while I have no idea which of the 12 siblings is which I really loved reading about their Christmas excitement, their childish banter, their joy at opening presents and so on. They go carol singing at one point and although there’s really nothing all that special about that part, I found myself enjoying the book way more than during any of the epic blahblah that was happening in between. Again, twelve siblings is a lot and most of them didn’t even get to speak, but the ones that do even felt like real characters with a distinct personality. Chatterbox Mary or calm and reliable Paul come to mind. They felt way more alive than Will ever did.

So to sum it all up, this book has three gigantic problems: a passive protagonist, no world building whatsoever, a thin plot without any real stakes.
What worked was the writing itself. I found the prose quite nice and it built up a great atmosphere of this wintery landscape and of Will jumping around in time – oh yeah, the Old Ones can just go through time somehow but don’t ask me how because with one exception where they go through an actual door, nobody explains how this works or if Will could do it by himself or whatever.
The whole quest never feels like a quest because Will just goes about his everyday life, doing whatever he would be doing anyway and then suddenly magic happens to him and one of the Old Ones is there and hands him a sign or tells him how to get it. He goes and gets it and we’re back to regular life until the whole thing starts over again until finally, all six signs are collected and can be united. Because reasons.

When I had finally reached the end of this tedious repetitive bore of a book, I felt quite cheated because there wasn’t even a big epic fight at the end. Sure, Will faces the Rider (kind of the boss of the Dark, at least in this book) and for the first time has to make a decision on his own, but then – conveniently as everything in this story – things just fall into place and Will can go back to doing whatever he was doing before. Merrimen and the Lady – whoever the hell she really is – conclude that now another one of the four big objects has been restored. The first one was the Grail from the first book which means two more are coming. So I guess that means two more books with “quests” and then, finally, the showdown between the Light and the Dark?

Look, I enjoyed the first book well enough but I would have just let it stand on its own if this series wasn’t hyped as such a classic of children’s literature, mentioned in the same breath with Narnia. If this second volume is any indication of how the series will continue, I’ll just call it quits here and go back to those new releases where plot and character and world building actually matter.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

Uninspired Feminist Space Story: Stina Leicht – Persephone Station

Man, this is not a good start of the reading year for me. I had been looking forward to this book so much and yet here I am, trying to find the words for another negative review. I’m running out of ways to express my disappointment…

PERSEPHONE STATION
by Stina Leicht

Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook: 512 pages
audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The clatter of heavy power-assisted armor echoed off the rocky hills as the corporate mercenaries lined up behind Serrao-Orlov’s latest representative. 

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Let me start with the thing that started out as something I didn’t even notice all that much, then turned into something that became annoying and finally into the One Thing That Drove Me Absolutely Nuts every time it came up. And that is the way Leicht writes dialogue and – to some degree – how audiobook narrator Maria Liatis reads it.
We all learn in school (early on!) that you don’t start every sentence of a story with the same word. We also learn that not every piece of dialogue has to be accompanied by a “he said/she said”. Well, Stina Leicht and her editors must have skipped that lesson because, oh boy, the amount of “she said” in this book is staggering. And I’m sure if I’ve read a phyiscal copy I would’t have minded so much because the brain mostly skips over these parts and doesn’t read them out each time. Maria Liatis, reading the audiobook, did however, and that reading aloud of the dialogue showed just how terrible it is. Leicht also has this quirk of ending one line of dialogue with “Angel said” and starting the next sentence with “Rosie said:” which puts two “she saids” right after each other and made me want to rip my hair out!  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not only the “she said” parts, it’s also what people say and how they say it. In case you’re worried that I’m just weird and this is a very “me” nitpick, I hear ya and I have brought examples.

“You okay, boss?” Enid asked.
“I’m good,” Angel said. “Check on Lou.”
“I’m trying,” Enid said. “The ship is a real mess.”
“Fuck,” Angel said.

That’s one lone example you say? Let me add another one and trust me, there are many more where that came from, I’m just choosing the ones that don’t contain any spoilers for the purpose of this review.

“Sukyi?” Angel asked. “Damn it! Report in!”
“Enid?” Lou asked over Kurosawa’s com system. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Enid said. “Try not to let them start another fire.”
“Doing the best I can,” Lou said.

You see, it’s not just a ridiculous amount of repetiton, it’s the exact same pattern of “word” she said “some more words”. I don’t know if that’s a stylistic choice or a matter of taste but I absolutely hated it. Sure, others may not care as much, but this took me out of the reading experience (which I can’t imagine the author wanted) and made me think about bad writing instead of the story at hand.

As for the plot, I’m sad to report it’s thin and the action sequences are badly told. Persephone is a backwater planet about which we don’t know very much. In the town Brynner lives crime boss Rosie, who runs Monk’s Bar where all the crime families gather and Rosie makes sure they behave themselves and don’t start a war among the people of Persephone. I actually liked Rosie, even though we don’t get to see enough of her!
Because of an alien POV we also know there’s an indigenous species living on Persephone. A species who will be exploited and used by Vissia Corsini, head of the evil Serrao-Orlov corporation if someone doesn’t do something against it. Vissia wants something from the alien Emmisaries that they don’t want to give so, naturally she plans to destroy them instead. Rosie has something to say about that and hires Captain Angel de la Reza and her ragtag crew to protect the Emissaries and fight against Vissia, even if going against her huge corporation is a suicide mission…
There’s also a side plot

This is marketed as a “feminist space opera” and, yes, almost all the characters are female, but I personally think there’s a little more to feminism than leaving out men and putting women or nonbinary folks everywhere. In fact, no matter what their gender, I find it most important that an author makes me care about their characters and Stina Leicht made hers unfortunately flat.
The biggest problem is that we just get to know so very little about them. The author slaps a marker on each and that’s the thing that defines their personality. Angel misses the military since she’s been kicked out, Suyki is dying of an Old Earth disease, Lou is the quirky, chipper pilot, Enid the quiet, sarcastic sniper. Rosie is the only one whose values and reasons for doing what they do came out a bit. Although their motives take a while to be fully revealed, it’s clear that their heart is in the right spot and they see the evil being done (or threatening to be done) by the powerful people of Serrao-Orlov.
And to be fe fair, you do get to know snippets of some other characters’ lives over the course of this book but mostly they are just cardboard cutouts whose hopes and dreams, whose fears and worries and plans for life remain unknown to the reader. What little we do learn is told through heavy-handed exposition. And that’s a shame because I really looked forward to falling in love with the crew of Kurosawa. I ended up liking Lou anyway because, come on, what’s not to like? She’s a super tropey character and we’ve all seen the likes of her a billion times before, but that’s just because it’s such a popular character type. I like a girl who sits in the pilot’s chair of a ship, looking at an impossible flying maneuver with her tongue sticking out between her teeth while everyone else expects to die in the next few seconds. Even if that’s all there is to her.

Another problem I had with the audiobook – and this is really audiobook only and doesn’t change my opinion of the story or characters – was the way Maria Liatis read the characters. I generally enjoyed her voice and narration but she is not good at voicing distinct characters. Which may be partially the author’s fault for making everyone talk the same way. Rosie and Enid get a slightly deeper voice and I could usually tell when they were speaking. Lou gets a slightly more high pitched excited tone, but all the others – and that leaves quite a few of them, some alien, some human – sound exactly the same. Apparently, Liatis tried to make Suyki sound distinct by giving her a case of occasional British-like accent. I swear, that accent is there one sentence and completely gone the next, sometimes it appears and dissapears within the same line of dialogue, sometimes the narrator seems to have missed a “Suyki said” while reading and accidentally not said the line with the accent… I don’t know what but it was a mess.

Now I feel bad enough for having said so many negative things about this book, so please let me share the positives! The main ideas of the plot and the characters aren’t new or original, but Stina Leicht put together some interesting themes and SFF ideas that made the world of Persephone more intriguing.
Probably most interesting to me was the way AI and AGI were incorporated into the story. The ship Kurosawa is intelligent and communicates with its crew, but much cooler than that is the  AGI Kennedy Liu whose consciousness isn’t in a ship or a computer but rather in a human body. Which is totally illegal but does give her some cool powers that regular humans (obviously) don’t have.
I also liked Angel’s Combat Assistant which can enhance her fighting by releasing adrenaline into her body, or giving her calming medication when her heart rate is too high, etc. I was a little surprised that so few characters had a CA because even without using it for battle, that seems like a very useful futuristic gadget to have. So I loved that idea but would have liked to see it incorporated more into the world.

Spending more time with – or at least learning about – the Emissaries, the indigenous species of Persephone, would have been great as well. Through some rather clunky exposition, we do learn some aspects of them and that was enough for me to like them and stand behind Rosie’s mission to protect them. Apart from the fact that humans came to their planet and now want to force this peaceful people to do things they do not wish to do, the Emissary characters we get to know better were very likable. Maybe even a tad romanticized.
But I loved little ideas like them being able to change their shape (so they can look human when talking to other humans) but generally not being human-shaped. They also communicate by smell, which I’ve never seen done before in an SFF story. Oh yeah, and they have some great abilities which I won’t spoil here but obviously the bad guys want that knowledge for themseves, which kicks off the entire meagre plot.

I think the author just took on too much for a single book. The world building has potential but we never get quite enough of any of its aspects. Rather than obsessing with diversity rap, I would have liked to get to know just a couple of characters better so I could care about them. There’s also a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. Sure, friendships (especially among women) are wonderful, but everyone is just so damn nice all the time and these supposedly grimdark crime people always do the right thing. I never really believed that we were on a seedy underbelly type of planet and the cast are all criminals. There was no moral ambiguitiy, no tough questions to answer, no conflict. The villain is bad, everyone else is pure good and that’s that.

2021 has started as a mediocre reading year for me, but let me contrast this not-great book with the really bad one I’ve read recently. The writing, although not my cup of tea, was worlds better and if it’s to your taste, this book is very readable. For a chunky novel, I did get through it quickly enough and I will probably try another of Stina Leicht’s books. Other than Alechia Dow’s novel (The Sound of Stars was… really not good), this felt more like a book by a talented author that could just have used some more editing and a bit more flesh to its plot. I thought most of my problems were a matter of taste but other reviews are also quite mixed… So while I wouldn’t recommend The Sound of Stars to adults, especially ones who read a lot of SFF, I would still cautiously recommend Persephone Station. Maybe read a sample chapter to see if you like it first, though.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Second opinions:

V. E. Schwab – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

My relationship with V. E. Schwab’s books is complicated. I loved A Darker Shade of Magic, was incredibly disappointed in its sequel, and found the conclusion to that trilogy only okay. But then I heard what she had taken on in her latest novel, and people – especially ones who didn’t like Schwab’s writing – posted rave reviews about this book. So I got drawn in by the hype and tried it myself. With mixed results.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE
by V. E. Schwab

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 448 pages
Audiobook: 17 hours 10 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: A girl is running for her life.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever-and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore, and he remembers her name.
In the vein of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Life After Life, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is New York Times bestselling author V. E. Schwab’s #1 New York Times Bestselling Author genre-defying tour de force.

I was determined to love this book when I started. A young French girl makes a deal with the devil for eternal life but the price she pays is that everyone immediately forgets her and she can’t leave a mark on the world. She can’t even say her name or write anything down. I mean, what a great idea, what a great sfnal riff on Faust, right? Well…
For a book that I went into wanting to love it, it is truly impressive how much of a let down it turned out to be. There were so many little things that bothered me and they added up to a big pile of dislikes.

First and foremost, the plot was soooooo predictable. I mean, you could guess it after Addie and Henry’s first meeting. Maybe some minor things weren’t obvious from miles away, but all the big plot beats were easy to guess and that took a lot of suspense out of a story that could have been so exciting.
It takes half the novel to even catch up to what we’ve already been told by the synopsis. I’m not saying there weren’t any interesting moments to be found in the first half of the book but there’s nothing truly surprising or innovative. Addie makes a deal with the devil (or a devil), lives forever, is forgotten by everyone and eventually meets one person, one guy, who does remember her. That’s literally what the back of the book says and it takes up half of its pages!

The switches between past and present make the story easy enough to read and I never quite felt bored but I was also never truly hooked. After all, I already knew certain things from the synopsis and reading about them in slightly more detail wasn’t exactly riveting. I did like seeing Addie’s beginnings as a cursed human. Figuring out what exactly her curse means and learning how to live a life – no matter how long – when nobody remembers her, presented quite the challenge. There are so many little things I didn’t consider like renting a place to live, or later opening a bank account, working a job… none of that is possible for Addie because as soon as she’s out of sight people don’t remember who she is. And she couldn’t even sign her name if someone did remember her. It’s a really cool concept and Schwab showed us glimpses of Addie’s trouble finding her way but I was constantly hoping for more depth, more insight into what this does to a person’s mind. Being this non-entity in the eyes of everyone else, never having a place you can call home, not having any friends or relationships that last longer than a few hours… That shit does something to you. But sadly, all we get is telling, not showing, of these troubles and Addie doesn’t really change because of this.

We are shown that Addie grows into quite a good thief (how else should she survive?) and that she becomes rather careless with what she says and to whom because all she has to do is walk away for a few minutes and she gets a do-over. But I felt that Addie was altogether too normal for a 300-year-old woman who has been lonely for 277 of them. The weight of those years never really got through in the writing and neither does Addie feel like someone with that amount of life experience. Wouldn’t every young person seem to be dreadfully boring and naive to her? Would she even want to be friends with people the age she looks?
And holy shit, wouldn’t living through wars, revolutions, scientific discoveries, and seeing different places of the world change you in some way? A person who lives 300 years, no matter where they started, should be anything but normal! And yet, Addie was exactly the same in the flashback chapters as she was in the present ones, and neither version was particularly interesting.

The characters in general are super one-dimensional. All we learn about Addie is that she wants to be free and she’s stubborn, not willing to give into the Darkness who keeps coming back asking for her soul. Henry is also defined only by the fact that he wants to be loved and never feels like he’s enough… Sure, Addie is into art and tries to leave her mark on the world by inspiring artists to create something that she cannot. But that’s all there is. She has lived through several wars and by 2014, she still hasn’t found anything new to interest her?
The Darkness could have been a cool villain but Schwab is so enamoured with his looks that she rarely has anything to say about him other than the changing shade of his green eyes or how his dark curls hang into his face. I must have read a variation of that exact description about 50 times in this book and – suprisingly – it didn’t make him a more interesting character, it just annoyed the shit out of me. I DON’T CARE WHAT COLOR HIS EYES ARE OR HOW SEXILY HIS HAIR HANGS INTO HIS FACE!!! Give him a personality, please!

The trope of super old being falling in love with a young person has been annyoing me forever – I don’t care if it’s vampires or immortal humans or gods. Just because someone looks 23 doesn’t mean a romance with an actual 28-year-old  guy would make sense. Addie speaks a dozen languages, has read so many books, experienced so much – again, including multiple wars and other things that would be traumatic to anyone else – and yet she doesn’t feel… understimulated talking to Henry who hasn’t figured out his life yet because he’s just 28 years old? I’m not trying to be mean or pretend like young people can’t be wise or clever (I’m in my mid-thirties so I’m not much wiser than Henry), but I just find it so unbelievable that an age gap this large wouldn’t at least have some impact on a relationship. For the sake of a cheesy love story with no chemistry whatsoever, in this book it doesn’t.

My other major gripe kind of ties into the whole 300-year-old Addie problem. We read alternating chapters about the present where Addie meets Henry and Addie’s past, slowly catching up the past chapters to where she is now. And there was soooooo much potential for cool stuff in those past chapters because ADDIE HAS LIVED 300 YEARS AND HAS SEEN SOME SHIT! But do we get to see any of that? Spoiler alert: Nope!
Addie lives in Paris, in Florence, in Venice, London, New York, New Orleans, all those interesting and exciting places, and especially set during exciting times. Sometimes terrible times, yes, but exciting to read about. But Schwab apparently didn’t feel like actually taking us on Addie’s journey (or maybe she didn’t want to do all that research) because most of those chapters focus on unimportant things, and many (oh so many) are just Addie and the Darkness repeating their age-old conversation about whether she’s finally ready to give up and hand over her soul.
The telling-instead-of-showing flaw was more obvious than ever in those chapters because Schwab likes counting off things that Addie has recently witnessed or wants to see in her near future. Like the Eiffel Tower being built for example. But why not just take us there and let us feel her wonder at actually seeing it?? No, Schwab chose her settings for ultimate boredom and contented herself with letting Addie make lists in her head about all the cool stuff we could have read about if the author had bothered writing it.

Speaking of taking out the suspense – Addie is immortal. So we know she can’t die by natural means or be killed. That’s part of her deal. She lives as long as she wants to until she’s ready to stop and give her soul to the Darkness. So whenever Addie gets into danger (being cornered by guards, caught stealing, what have you), we know nothing can possibly happen to her. So while those scenes at least show a different side of Addie’s long life, they weren’t all that engaging because we knew she’d get out of it easily. And if things appeared to go really bad (she can’t be killed, but people can still hurt her), the Darkness shows up conveniently to whisk her away. After that happens twice, you kind of know that the next time she’s in danger, he’s going to show up again and point his sexy green eyes at her while having his dark curls fall onto his forehead.

All of that said, the book is still very readable. Readable… this stupid word means something different to everyone, but to me it means easily flowing prose, something you can pick up and read for an hour without noticing the time or pages go by. Although Schwab throws in occasional poetic sentences and a ton of lines that should feel important but aren’t because I just didn’t care about the characters, her writing is quite simple and easy to follow. Apart from the excessive use of the word “palimpsest”, the language isn’t difficult or flowery (which is part of the problem because she could have used language to set the scene, to create atmosphere whenever Addie was in a new place or we see her living in a different time… but yeah, there’s wasted potential all over this book).
The fact that the chapters are really, really short is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it makes you read more (just one more chapter, it’s just 5 pages) and a curse because none of those chapters let you breathe long enough to immerse yourself in the time or place it’s set in. If I only get to spend half a page with some guy Addie sleeps with, why should I care about him 50 pages later? To me, the reader, he is an unimportant character, a name that was mentioned once. He may mean something to Addie but it’s the author’s job to make him mean something to us as well.

What ultimately disappointed me so much was that this is such a cool idea that could have been a great novel in the hands of someone more capable. I didn’t feel the romance at all, I didn’t care about Addie’s many past lovers (because we never get a chance to get to know them properly), and I could predict every single “twist” plus the ending from very early on. You’d think it would feel nice to be proven right when reading a book – like, yay I knew this was coming – but it actually takes all the pleasure out of it. I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to be emotionally engaged, I wanted to care whether Addie and Henry stayed together, whether she could get out of her curse somehow, whether her long life would actually mean anything in the end.
Unfortunately (and nobody is more bummed out about this than me) everything about this book fell flat. From cheesy lines to endless repetitions of the same conversations, to the wasted potential of 300 years’ worth of history left unexplored.

I wanted to like this book so badly and I’m crushed it turned out to be a shallow, trope-ridden romance that has nothing much to say about its characters, art, or history. The only upside is that, among the many brilliant 2020 publications, I can safely leave this one off my Hugo nomination ballot…

This novel’s biggest – and its most ironic – fault is how utterly forgettable it is.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

 

Strangely Comforting but also Really Backwards: Raymond E. Feist – Magician

I picked this book up late in April when it was chosen as a Sword and Laser book club pick. As I had only read the first half – Magician: Apprentice – previously, I thought this would be a good chance to re-read that part and then go straight for the second. To clarify, depending on which edition of the book you pick up, it is sold in either one or two volumes. The experience was both wonderful and a great reminder of why SFF if such a brilliant genre these days. Those Tolkien-inspired fantasies have some real problems…

MAGICIAN
by Raymond E. Feist

Published: Harper Voyager, 1982
eBook: 865 pages
Series: The Riftwar Saga #1
My rating:

Opening line: The storm had broken. Pug danced along the edges of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools.

The world had changed even before I discovered the foreign ship wrecked on the shore below Crydee Castle, but it was the harbinger of the chaos and death that was coming to our door.

War had come to the Kingdom of the Isles, and in the years that followed it would scatter my friends across the world. I longed to train as a warrior and fight alongside our duke like my foster-brother, but when the time came, I was not offered that choice. My fate would be shaped by other forces.

My name is Pug. I was once an orphaned kitchen boy, with no family and no prospects, but I am destined to become a master magician…

Pug and Tomas are two teenage boys who live in Crydee, where there is a Lord, a magician, a priest, and a princess. They are looking forward to the annual choosing ceremony with trepidation, because this will decide their future. Both boys dream of becoming great warriors in the military and conquering the heart of a beautiful princess – maybe even their own princess Carline, who knows? But, as you can expect, the ceremony arrives  and everyone is chosen except for Pug, who is then picked by Kulgan, the magician, almost like he’s taking pity on him. But we, well-read in fantasy as we are, know that Pug has great powers slumbering deep inside him and is destined for Great Things. What really kicks the story off, however, is the arrival of a strange ship at the coast. We soon learn that a people from somewhere else is invading the country and this starts a very, very, VERY long war.

I understand why this book was split in two by certain publishers. While it does tell one larger story – that of the war mentioned above – it clearly feels like two books. The first one was pure comfort for me. I had read it before, although many years ago, and I only remembered a few key scenes. Following Pug and Tomas as boys was a charming experience, not only because everything is so quaint, but because I knew exactly what I was going to get. They even go on a quest with a group of people – among them a dwarf lord and an Aragorn-like master of the hunt. Their journey leads them into dwarven caves, over mountains and over sea. It’s your basic Tolkienesque quest story and I was happy to be in it. Whenever they encounter trouble, something or someone conveniently appears and saves the day. You never get the feeling that there is any real danger for our protagonists but that doesn’t mean the more thrilling scenes were boring. I enjoyed the writing style and actually breezed through the first half of Magician very quickly. It was the second half, the one that was new to me, that dragged on…

Feist made some interesting decisions about how to tell this story. At the beginning of the second part, the war between Midkemia (Pug and Tomas’s home world) and the invading Tsurani has been going on for five years. In the second part, we finally get to learn more about the Tsurani, sometimes even from their own point of view. My problem was more with the pacing and the POV changes than with the story or content itself.
We’d get one, sometimes several, very long chapters from one POV without hearing anything from the other protagonists. And as the list of POV characters increased, that meant even more time away from the people and settings I was actually interested in. There was one sequence in particular that felt super unnecessary to the plot as a whole and also just Didn’t Want To End. It involved prince Arutha and a pirate captain and a long journey there and back again that only served the purpose of setting up a plot line for the next book. I’m serious, it had no bearing on this book. All the information and set up it conveyed could have been done much more quickly and would have saved me 100 pages of an okay but somewhat tedious “adventure”.

As for the characters, they are mostly cardboard. Pug and Tomas are the ones we start out following, but the cast grows and grows as the story goes on. And nobody really has much personality beyond what they’re first described at. Kulgan is the wise elderly magician, Pug and Tomas are both super nice and honorable and just want to do good things, the princes differ only insofar as one is shy and one more outspoken and the Tsurani are all about honor, although some of them are pure evil and others more morally grey. The most interesting character, and incidentally one that was dropped almost completely in the second book, is princess Carline. She is a difficult person with her own head and you can never be sure what she’s thinking or even what she wants. I don’t think she even knows herself what she wants, which made her all the more believable as a teenager, especially a royal one. I liked Carline. 🙂
As for other female characters, there is a disturbing lack of them. But I also knew that going in. This is Tolkien-inspired fantasy from the early 80ies so my expectations were low to begin with. Carline was a positive surprise, though, and raised my hopes for other female characters. Alas, no such luck. There is one other princess who is only there to be pretty and both childlike and womanly elegant (the way she was described was actually quite creepy, but either way she was only seen as an object, both sexual and for power because princess) and a Tsurani woman who barely gets to say anything and only shows up as an understanding spouse and mother who leaves the men to do the serious business. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d brought them freshly baked cookies into the war tent, to be honest. Oh, and let’s not forget the elf queen Eglaranna who is… beautiful, and a queen, and exists to become the wife of a male character who gets a way more interesting story than she can even dream of. So yeah, it’s not good.

I had decided to try and ignore most of these “old timey” fantasy book issues and just roll with it, to enjoy the story mostly for the plot and hopefully cool magic, maybe a dragon or two, and some epic battles. Sometimes, that’s all you need, and as I started reading this during the height of the pandemic (at least here in Austria), Magician gave me a sense of nostalgia and made me feel somehow safe in its world. I knew all the important characters would survive, I knew Pug would become a magician – I mean, it’s in the title – and evil would be vanquished.
Well, Feist may have started out basically re-writing Tolkien but he threw his own ideas in eventually and delivered a book that was entertaining enough. Not groundbreaking, not even really something I’d recommend but something that was like a warm, cozy blanket during a difficult time. And for that I am grateful, despite all the book’s flaws. And there are plenty of them.

Not just the characters are lazily written, the world building – at least for Midkemia – is even worse. It’s your basic medieval Europe fantasy where nothing needs to be explained, the world doesn’t even need to be built because it’s your basic blueprint for most fantasy from that time period. Take Middle-Earth, change the map around a bit and you’ve got Midkemia. At least with the Tsurani, Feist had to make up his own race, his own world with its own customs. Making the Tsurani a people of war wasn’t super original but at least it’s a step up from Orcs. The Tsurani do have a culture, and customs, and a social order, and that was easily the most interesting aspect of the entire book. The way they revere their magicians made for great reading, especially compared to how Midkemians view their own practitioners of magic. But that’s just one of the differences between our two warring factions and they don’t make Midkemians look good.

The Tsurani culture is disrespected wherever possible. The entire story is set up in a way that makes us believe the Midkemians are the forward thinking, modern folk while the Tsurani, although they produce powerful magicians, are stuck in the past. They have slavery and gladiator games, after all. They have to commit suicide when honor demands it. They are, in short, very different from our protagonists. I mean… the nerve ! Our glorious heroes from Midkemia live happily in a monarchy where the king can decide on a whim whom to give a title and lands, after all, while the lower classes toil away without a chance of moving up in the world. Those are clearly the good guys, right? As I mentioned, I had made a conscious decision to let most of those issues go and just read this book for the story. Of course it’s impossible to completely shut off the part of your mind that questions things and while I tried my best to not let this influence me too much, it certainly did.
I mean… the Midkemians accept a Tsurani into their military and the first thing they do is change his name (Tchakachakalla) to Charles! Why? Because it was too hard to pronounce! Yeah, it sure is if you don’t even try. It’s just a small scene but holy shit, did it make me angry. As someone who loves learning new languages, I know all too well that words can be hard to pronounce but – as with most things – with a little practice you can get close enough. And people usually are happy when they see you try, even if you don’t get it perfectly right. And it’s not like they were talking about the Tsurani word for “bread” – it’s someone’s name!

I was also really disappointed in the ending. As I don’t spoil books, I’ll have to vaguely talk around what I mean but I’ll do my best so you can understand why I’m so annoyed. A sort of resulotion is in grasping distance, all pieces are in place for the story to end. Then someone does something for a reason “that will be revealed later” and that makes no sense whatsoever, which drags the whole thing out and creates problems for (I’m assuming) the next book. Okay, fine, I like a good twist, now give me those mysterious reasons why things had to happen this way. Don’t worry, this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, we do get the reasons. Except they are flimsy at best and ridiculous when you think about them for a second. I mean, maybe Feist had this whole series planned and it will all somehow make sense in the later books after all. But it didn’t in this book and without that added extra plot, the book could have been another 50 pages shorter.

As you can see, this is a tough one for me to rate. I would give the first half – the one that was the predictable Tolkien-clone and didn’t do anything original – a 6.5 out of 10 because despite all its flaws, it was also fun and it had Carline in it and it had limited POVs which made it super readable. The second half, although that’s where the original ideas start coming in, will not stay in my mind as fun. It took me ages to finish because I didn’t care enough to find out what would happen to most of the characters. Just like the people of Midkemia, I was tired of this long war and I didn’t want to have to follow so many people I didn’t even like all that much. With some POV changes, cutting unnecessary scenes and plot strings, it could have been good. And now I have to combine these two into one rating for the whole book. I don’t know, you guys. It’s one of those books that keeps showing up on “the most important fantasy books you have to read” lists so that makes it sound important. But having read the whole thing, I disagree. Read The Lord of the Rings and then move on to someone who does something new and original with fantasy.

I didn’t really get anything out of this book except some comfort and the ease of not having to learn about a fantasy culture or magic system. I had fun for the first 400 pages, I enjoyed some of the rest, but in reality, the reading experience got worse and worse for me the closer I got to the end. And because I don’t see why this book should be important for the genre as a whole, I’m going to go ahead and and rate it accordingly.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Good Idea, Amateurish Execution: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

A book based on the fairy tale of Cinderella with a queer Black protagonist and a cover this beautiful? Of course, I couldn’t resist. But it teaches me the lesson – yet again – that books can’t be judged by their cover or even by what the synopsis promises. I was all aflame for this story, I wanted to like it so very much, so my disappointment is even greater. Because it’s just not very good.

CINDERELLA IS DEAD
by Kalynn Bayron

Published: Bloomsbury YA, 2020
eBook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years.

It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince, but the fairytale is over.
Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball are forfeited.
But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen – she’s in love with her best friend, Erin, and hates the idea of being traded like cattle. And when Sophia’s night at the ball goes horribly wrong, she must run for her life. Alone and terrified, she finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s tomb. And there she meets someone who will show her that she has the power to remake her world.

This book starts out so well. 16-year-old Sophia lives in Lille, the capital of the kingdom of Mersailles which is ruled by the King and his ironclad laws. There aren’t many but they are serious. Based on the tale of Cinderella, which happened some 200 years ago, women have no rights, the husband or designated man of the household makes all decisions and can “discipline” his wife and children however he sees fit. How that horrorshow came out of the Cinderella fairytale? I don’t know and neither does anyone in this book, so just accept it and move on. The law also states that, starting at age 16, every young woman has to present herself at the royal ball where she can hope to be chosen by one of the men currently seeking a wife. Men aren’t obliged to go to the ball, they can go if they want and they can choose a 16-year-old wife even if they themselves are much older. If a girl doesn’t get chosen on her first ball, she shames her family. Every girl gets three tries, otherwise she is a forfeit and essentially turned into a slave. Yup, that’s the setup.

Look, everything about this world is already ridiculous but for the sake of the fairy tale I was willing to let it slide. This book, however, has very little in common with any fairy tale as it reads more like the exact cliché YA dystopian novel you’d expect from its world buliding. Sophia is not like other girls (ugh) but at least she has a good reason. Because she is in love with her best friend Erin and they’ve even had somewhat of a secret relationship. You can imagine that this woman-hating totalitarian world does not look kindly on the LGBTQIA+ community. Sophie wants to just run away but Erin is too scared and just wants to do what is expected of her, even if that means denying who she really is and living her entire life under the control of whichever man chooses to marry her.

At the ball, Sophia’s temper (or should I say stupidity) runs away with her and, shortly after, she runs away from the ball and is now on the run from the King and his guards. If they find her, they’ll execute her. Thankfully, she immediately meets another girl and continues her story with her. Secrets about the past are revealed, plans for revolution are made, allies are found, and romance abounds. I honestly cared so little about this book by the end that I feel tempted to just spoil the twists but in the hopes that other people find more joy in this, I’ll leave it at that.

There were so many problems with this novel and they became more and more glaring the further I got. I already mentioned the world building and how it makes absolutely no sense. But even with a huge amount of suspension of desbelief, I couldn’t overlook the book’s many other flaws.
Let’s start with the writing style. I had read on several places on the internet that this was supposed to be a debut novel (which would have made things a little better) but apparently it is not at all. Kalynn Bayron has published several other full-length novels and shorter works. I wouldn’t have guessed it judging from this book. Starting from recapping events from the previous chapter through dialogue, over super cringy conversations, overly dramatic descriptions, and a predictable plot, I would have bet my kidney that this was a first try at writing a novel. It honestly reads like my own very first book which I wrote at the age of 12 – part wish-fulfillment with the super beautiful girl protagonist who saves the world without actually doing much herself, part dramatic, impactful scenes but without the necessary build-up to make them dramatic.

The characters were actually the best part because, first of all, they are distinct and they’re not all perfect. Sophia, of course, is the best of the best and only sees the good in people and never does anything wrong and just wants to save the world and everyone from the evil king. Constance, her love interest, was my favorite. She is feisty and impulsive, sometimes even funny, but definitely her own kind of person. She was the one thing I kept holding on to while reading this. Other than that, we don’t get to know many characters too well. There’s mysterious Amina, there’s Sophia’s best friend and (ex-)lover Erin who conveniently turns into a bitch once Sophia has found a new love interest. Oh, and there was Luke, the young gay man Sophia meets at the very beginning of the book and whom we don’t see again until the very end because even though he was the most interesting person to me as a reader, in this story his only value seemed to have been that he is another gay person in Lille. Once that was established, he was no longer useful for Sophia’s story.

If I’m talking characters, I also have to talk about the villain, King Manford. He is the kind of villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. There is a super weaksauce attempt to explain his actions at the end, but it was neither convincing nor even tried to be. I can’t take a character like that serious and I certainly want more from a YA novel than a Bad Guy who’s just bad because reasons. It’s a writer’s job to come up with compelling characters with agency and that includes the antagonist. Manford executes people on a whim, he’s the one enforcing the crazy laws of his kingdom and making sure women don’t have any rights whatsoever. So of course it’s easy for Sophia to fight him. Her plan to kill him won’t haunt her because he is so purely evil that taking a life – even the life of a despicable man – would come with no psychological consequences. That is a sad thing, especially in a book that uses a fairy tale as its basis and pretends to subvert it.

The author generally doesn’t appear to have a lot of confidence in her readers. I can’t imagine why else she’d explain the events of the previous chapter to us, why her characters would have “As you know, Bob” conversations, or why we are told at least one million times how this society works, how bad it is, and how much everyone is suffering. WE GET IT!!! We got it after the first two chapters where you showed us this world. There’s no need to explain it to us again and again in every chapter after that! The writing got worse and worse later in the book. Once Sophia and Constance are together, they turn from young women with a plan to cheesy idiots, exclaiming their love in the most sappy words imaginable. Mind you, the entire story takes place over the course of maybe two weeks.

A good plot can still save a badly written novel. Give me the subversion of the original fairy tale, give me twists and high stake moments, give me battle scenes, and difficult decisions for our protagonist. I wants them! Oh… there’s none of that available in Cinderella is Dead? Well, that’s a bummer.
It starts with Sophia never actually figuring anything out for herself or doing anything of consequence of her own volition. Every situation where she doesn’t follow the rules is forced by someone else’s actions, be they the king’s or someone else’s. When she needs new information, it conveniently is delivered to her. By Constance, by a friendly townsperson, by the super ridiculously convenient fact that she finds something that has been stuck behind a drawer for the last 200 years that NOBODY ELSE HAS FOUND IN ALL THAT TIME!!!!! She can open locks with a hairpin when it’s convenient to the plot, the king’s guards are terrifying but also really dumb when it’s convenient to the plot, and the characters are only in real danger when it’s convenient to the plot. Do you see a pattern here?
I was never, for one second, worried that anything could happen to the protagonists because the potentially dangerous scenes are over so quickly that I didn’t have time to get worked up about them. And the style of this book is just not the kind where you have to fear for anyone. You know evil wil be defeated somehow. In fact, you know pretty early on how it will be defeated, even if Sophia takes ages to finally catch up and get it, too.

Another thing I found a bit strange was how much this world relied on the Disney movie version of Cinderella. That felt so cheap and jarring, especially since it gets mixed up with other versions of the fairy tale. When did Cinderella wear an “iconic blue dress” in the actual fairy tale? Depending on which version you read, her dresses are usually silver or gold. Bayron chose to implement elements such as birds picking out the stepsisters’ eyes and the fairy godmother but then she made a character ask someone else to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” something which is just so weird. I’m aware that there is no one original version of any fairy tale but using the Disney movie so heavily just didn’t feel right, especially for this secondary medieval-ish world where Cinderella was an actual person and movies definitely aren’t a thing.

Now that I’ve got most of the bad stuff out of the way, let met tell you what this book does well or how it at least earned a couple of brownie points. It’s not for the Black queer protagonist – that’s great for representation but it doesn’t make the story the tiniest bit better. But this was an absolutely readable book, probably because the language was so dialogue-heavy and otherwise kept things really simple. There are no big words, no long sentences, no flowery language or heavy descriptions. This was one of the fastest 400 pages I’ve read in a long time.
The far more important bit is that Bayron actually acknowledges that killing the king doesn’t immediately change the world. The rules he’s put into place have been with people for 200 years and they are very well fixed in their minds. Why would men, who currently hold all the power, willingly give that up just because their ruler is gone? It is mentioned several times in the book that killing the king is just the beginning and that there is a lot of work to be done afterwards. I loved that because it made this crazy world just a little bit more believable and it acknowledged that you can’t just start a quick rebellion, kill a ruler, and then live in a utopia where everyone’s happy and accepting of each other. That is important and I’m glad I got to read it in a YA book.
But then, in the very last chapter, there is this one little line that is such a big fat “Fuck you, democracy” to make me re-think my opinion of the protagonists and their motives… I can’t say more without spoiling but I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.

This entire book felt like a badly thrown together mash of ideas that weren’t thought out properly  at all. Our perfect heroine needs a villain to fight – fine, here’s a cardboard  uber-villain. But there has to be a shocking twist, right? Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back? Why not use something like that, that could be fun. And then evil has to be defeated, of course. Let’s just fill that final “battle” with lots of clichéd dialogue to hide the fact that there’s very little to it, after all.
No matter how I look at it, this just wasn’t a good book. It needed some serious work, some honest editing, and it just needed a better story. If the Cinderella aspect has so little actual impact on anything, why use it at all? Why not make up your own dystopian world and have it make sense? I started out quite liking the ideas and the characters. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got and the less I cared. I don’t know if I’ll give Kalynn Bayron another chance. If this is how she writes her fifth (or whatever) book, then I have little hope for improvement on the next one.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Pretty bad

Melissa Bashardoust – Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I was drawn to this book for three reasons. One, its title reminds me of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I absolutely adored. Two, it’s a fairy tale retelling of sorts, and three, I had read Bashardoust’s debut novel and thought she had a lot of potential.
Thanks so much to the publisher and NetGalley for the eARC provided. This book comes out on July 7th, so if you’re interested you’ll only have to wait a few more days.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published: Flatiron Books, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3/10

Opening line: Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

I’ve read Melissa Bashardoust’s previous novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass and while I didn’t love everything about it, it showed a lot of potential and made me want to seek out whatever book came next. If I hadn’t known before, I would have thought this was her first novel and Girls Made of Snow and Glass her second one because so many first novel problems were present in Girl, Serpent, Thorn.

This is the story of Soraya, sister to the shah, and cursed with poison running through her veins. Everything she touches dies, so her family keep her locked away and nobody can touch her. Soraya fills her time with stories and gardening. Until her brother the shah returns home with a div prisoner who might know more about Soraya’s curse. I’m sure most people will agree that this is a pretty cool premise. The implications of a young girl, isolated from other people, unable to touch anyone without killing them – that alone already makes for a highly interesting story. What would such a girl’s life be like? How would she deal with being so alone, especially at an age when her one friend is falling in love?
Unfortunately, I may have gone into this book with very wrong expectations. This is not a character exploration, nor even a particularly well done F/F romance. It’s about an unbearably stupid girl fighting an unbearably stupid villain. And all because every single character in this book is too dumb to just communicate and talk normally with each other. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on forced misunderstandings, characters making illogical decisions that no sane person would make, and a romance that exists  because the author tells us, not because the characters actually get to grow close to each other.

The writing in Bashardoust’s first novel was competent and the characters were interesting and not easily classified as good or evil. Somehow, in this second book of hers, the writing got way worse. Everything lacks a certain subtlety. Pauses in the characters’ speech, for example, are always explained. Actually, everything is always explained. There are moments that would have had much more impact if Bashardoust had let the readers understand them for themselves. And I’m not talking about super difficult-to-interpret things either. Everything is fairly obvious, but I was all the more annoyed at having everything spelled out even though there’s really no reason for it. If you don’t trust your readers to be intelligent enough to get it, that’s just not very flattering.

Let’s talk romance. This is marketed as an F/F romance but apparently, the love triangle is also making a comeback. Because this starts with not quite insta-love (but sort of) and only some of it can be explained. Soraya has been lonely for a long time, so it’s only natural and understandable that she yearns for human contact and that she’d seek out the attention of a handsome young man. Why said young man is immediately infatuated with her, however, is unclear and should at least raise some alarm bells for Soraya!
And while her attraction can be understood, the immediate exclamations of deep emotions cannot. Sure, spill all your lifelong secrets to the guy you just met, even though you’ve been keeping them your entire life… How am I supposed to root for a heroine who behaves that stupidly and puts her trust in a complete stranger just because he tells her she’s pretty? Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of story but I just kept shaking my head and rolling my eyes for the entire first half of the book.

And it’s not just Soraya either. The villain – who has a great back story and could be so incredibly interesting! – is just as gullible and idiotic as Soraya. I also never understood why he’s evil. There’s no shades of grey here, he just does bad stuff because reasons. It’s just not fun to root for a dumb protagonist who’s fighting against an equally dumb villain, although at least the odds are somewhat evened out by the fact they neither of them seems to be using their brain. I won’t tell you exactly what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but let me give you a few vague examples.
Soraya immediately puts all her trust (something she hasn’t done ever!) in the guy she just met because he deeply loves her and thus is obviously trustworthy. Not only does she tell him about her curse but she also spills some other family secrets that are vital to keep her family safe!
Later in the book, Soraya tries to trick the villain by agreeing with him. It’s the most obvious, unbelievable trick in the universe and any villain worth his salt would not fall for it. Except here, he does.
And let’s not forget Soraya’s most glorious moment of stupidity when she accidentally lets someone know another secret by misspeaking. Girl, take half a second to think before you speak!! Seriously!

If the characters had otherwise been interesting, I might have overlooked those glaring problems. But they are all flat. Cardboard flat. Everyone gets one characteristic, one problem they’re dealing with and that’s it. The characters’ emotional response to anything that happens is just way overdone. Soraya holds back angry tears when telling a story that she’s heard and told over and over for many years? If we’re supposed to understand that she’s angry about it, make it less melodramatic, please. The same goes for the romantic moments. Everything felt just sooooo over the top. One smouldering look and Soraya’s skin prickles, it just felt completely ridiculous.  There were several of these instances and I kept getting the feeling that this is the author trying to make her readers emotional. It doesn’t work that way! You make us like and care about your characters and then bad or romantic or exciting things happen to them and we feel things. Don’t just tell us Soraya cried and expect us to feel sad along with her when we have no basis to understand her.

I admit I started reading this book when I was also reading Deeplight by Frances Hardinge and the difference in writing style and sheer skill became all the more apparent. I don’t know if I would have liked this better if I hadn’t been reading one of the best YA books ever at the same time but I’m pretty sure my reaction to the writing would have been mostly the same. I don’t like stupid characters without any nuance to them, no matter how interesting the setting may be.

Ah, let’s take a moment to discuss setting and world-building. There has been a high demand for fantasy set outside the tropey medieval Europe stuff that used to be everywhere, and I am more than happy that publishing is doing pretty great when it comes to that. We get all sorts of stories set in places all over the world – real and fictional – inspired by underrepresented mythologies, fairy tales, histories, and people. So of course I was excited to read a Persian-inspired fairy tale retelling. But it takes more to build a fictional place than just throwing in some fancy words or making your characters wear certain clothes. That’s only skin-deep and I have come to expect more of YA!
At no point did I really feel like I was in a specific setting. The palace may go by a Persion-inspired name but the way it’s described, it could have been any old castle. Other than that, we get a mountain and a forest setting. So fine, if the actual place and the climate don’t feature in the book very much, that’s okay. Then at least show us where we are through politics. Again, Soraya’s brother Sorush may have been called shah instead of king but essentially, that’s how he is presented. Politics are never even really mentioned and while that wasn’t super necessary for Soraya’s personal story, there are hints of div politics. The divs are just described as this supernatural species of beings who attack and kill humans. We don’t know exactly why humans and divs are at war. We do learn that divs aren’t all alike, that there are factions among them and they they don’t necessarily get along. Which would have been a cool addition to a really thin plot. But by the end of the book, we know exactly as much as we do at the beginning. So definitely don’t expect anything like City of Brass level political intrigue.

I don’t know the reasons behind the choices made with this novel. Is it a misguided belief that deeper world-building will put off readers? Do authors and/or publishers think kids wouldn’t get it? Was it just laziness because for an immersive world that feels real, you’d have to do a lot of research, hire sensitivity readers (especially when writing about a culture not your own), and put in a lot of work? From the afterwork I gathered that the author did some research but other than names, we don’t get to see the fruit of that labor. In the end, I honestly don’t care why the world building is so thin. If the end product remains shallow, that’s the version the publisher decided was going to go out into the world and that’s all we readers get. And I’m not particularly happy with what I got here.

Now that the most glaring problems are out of the way, let’s look at the actual story. Because, boy, does it have problems of its own. The first half of the book – and I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly in the middle – reads like a first draft. The entire first half is basically the set up for the real plot. And I don’t mean the part that you read in the synopsis – that’s the set up for the set up. Soraya’s skin is poisonous and anything she touches, she kills. So her royal family has hidden her away. She moves through secret corridors, rarely interacts with humans other than her mother, and yearns for friendship and love and human touch. So far, so intriguing. Then that whole insta-love-but-not-really-thing happens followed by a series of super dumb decisions,and bad writing.
In the second half of the book, however, the story finally finds its footing and becomes interesting. I’m not saying it’s great but at least by that point, I actually wanted to get back to the book to see what would happen next. Until Soraya’s next act of supreme stupidity at least.

I’ve already ranted about the characters but I want to say that they are not all bad. The most interesting ones just aren’t the protagonist. Soraya’s mother, for example, would have made one hell of a heroine. Parvaneh, the imprisoned parik (a type of div) Soraya wants to question about her curse, also turns out to be more than first meets the eye. It’s a shame that Soraya herself is so flat. Her only defining quality is that she’s cursed, wants to get uncursed and thinks of herself as a monster. It’s a good premise. I like characters who are torn, who have to find their place in the world, but if that’s their only thing and they behave stupidly most of the time, then that’s just not enough.

You will not be surprised that I didn’t really like this book. During the second half, we at least get some interesting scenes and a few moments of excitement. Although that is quenched pretty quickly by Soraya being dumb, the villain being dumb, or the plot being super convenient. The ending left me feeling annoyed and asking myself what the hell I’d been reading and WHY. If the whole point of the story is for Soraya to accept her otherness and to live with who she is, that’s great but please wrap it in a good story.
I spent almost all of the time reading this book rolling  my eyes, waiting for something thrilling to happen, and asking myself when the actual romance part would start. Sadly, this was super disappointing. For the little spark of good ideas (villain backstory, hinted at div politics, great mother character) I’m giving this book a few brownie points. But if this hadn’t been a review copy, I would have DNFd it long before the 50% mark.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Pretty bad

Sisters Survive Through Fantasy: Fran Wilde – Riverland

In my yearly quest to be a conscientious Hugo voter and read ALL THE BOOKS, I have come to look forward to the Lodestar finalists a lot. If you read a lot of YA, you can get overwhelmed by the various hypes surrounding books with pretty covers or by famous authors and it gets easy to overlook the lesser known ones. I’m glad the Lodestar finalists offer a variety of  books for young people and not just the most popular ones. Even if this one didn’t really work for me.

RIVERLAND
by Fran Wilde

Published: Amulet Books, 2019
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “Once upon a time…”

When things go bad at home, sisters Eleanor and Mike hide in a secret place under Eleanor’s bed, telling monster stories. Often, it seems those stories and their mother’s house magic are all that keep them safe from both busybodies and their dad’s temper. But when their father breaks a family heirloom, a glass witch ball, a river suddenly appears beneath the bed, and Eleanor and Mike fall into a world where dreams are born, nightmares struggle to break into the real world, and secrets have big consequences. Full of both adventure and heart, Riverland is a story about the bond between two sisters and how they must make their own magic to protect each other and save the ones they love.

Eleanor and her little sister Mike live with their parents, go to school, and are generally normal kids. Except for the house magic, of course. House magic is when things get broken or disappear, new things magically appear to replace them. It is vital that the two sisters keep this a secret from the rest of the world because if you break the rules, bad things happen…

I knew before I started reading this book that it deals with domestic abuse and violence but this is also a fantasy novel, so it took me a while to figure out whether the whole concept of house magic was actual magic or just something Eleanor made up to explain how when her father breaks pictures on the wall or the TV, her mom simply goes out and buys new things to replace them. Generally, I like my magic ambiguous. Give me Pan’s Labyrinth all the way and let me make up my own mind whether to believe the magic is real or just a metaphor. But in this book, I struggled for some reason. I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t, especially when elements that were clearly fantasy and clearly “real magic” came into play.

While certain aspects of this novel were enjoyable, many others left me wanting. The world building and plot are very weak and real, difficult  problems are resolved too easily. It made me wonder what all the struggle was for when things can just get better with a poof. But let’s start with the characters because that’ what a good story hinges on for me.

I liked both Eleanor and Mike and it was easy to feel their fear and the restrictions their family life puts on them. They have to make extra sure to stick to the rules, to not make their father angry, disobey, or draw attention to their family because otherwise bad things happen. Those bad things are usually described only by the loud noises the girls hear before going to sleep but it’s obvious their father is violent. He breaks objects around the house, he may beat his wife, and he’s definitely easy to annoy. Having some experience with a hostile environment myself,  I found Fran Wilde’s descriptions of the girls constant fear to be excellent. Even if their father’s isn’t aimed directly at the girls, they  see and hear things and their home is not the safe and happy place it should be!
But unfortunately, that is the defining characteristic of our two protagonists. Sure, it is mentioned once that Eleanor likes school and learning in general, and that she enjoys fantasy books, but I didn’t get the overall impression that she was a fully formed character. Mike is mostly portrayed as the adorable younger sister who sometimes blurts out things she shouldn’t. That didn’t keep me from caring for these two but I just wanted a little bit more.

My biggest issue with this book was the plot and world building, though. When the kids’ father breaks an heirloom “witch ball” – a glass sphere that used to be a fishing lure – the girls discover a magical Riverland by falling into a puddle under Eleanor’s bed. This is where the real magic starts and it had so much potential to be a great children’s portal fantasy. But sadly, the magical Riverland is small, boring, and peopled very sparsely. This magical river is the world of Dream where nightmares are horse-shaped smoke, birds can talk, and crabs try to fix leaks in the river. And that’s it. There isn’t any more to it, even by the end of the book.
I also didn’t like how comparatively easy it was for the girls to go in and out of this magical world. There are obstacles, of course, but  much like the issue at the heart of this book, these obstacles are overcome too easily and too quickly. That made it harder for me to believe that the River is actually dangerous and it took out all the tension from the more exciting scenes. If I, as the reader, don’t think anything can really happen to the protagonists, why shouuld I care?

That doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Ironically for an avid fantasy reader, I preferred the parts of the plot that happened in the real world and had nothing to do with magic. El and Mike meet their grandmother for the first time and see that spilling some water doesn’t have to end in being shouted at. El also visits her best friend Pendra’s house – a chaotic place filled with noise, and pets, and love. These scenes helped show the contrast to their own family home beautifully and made me ache inside. They’re just two kids and they deserve a happy childhood, not one where they have to be constantly on edge and fear that their toys will be taken away, their  mother might get hurt, or they will be  punished for things children do.

So I’m on the fence. I think Fran Wilde took on a very difficult topic and tried to wrap it into a middle grade story by leaving the worst parts out. I appreciate that there is almost no description of actual violence – it’s all shouting and noises of glass breaking or plates being smashed – but it also makes things feel less bad than they actually are. I also loved how the sisters don’t just go and talk to someone. There are many reasons why victims of domestic violence don’t come forward (shame, fear, any number of things) – that felt realistic to me, even though I know that speaking up and confiding in someone would have probably made their life a lot  better. I had hoped that their trips to the magical River would serve as a sort of parallel of them finding their way in the real world but for that, the magic system and world building just weren’t fleshed out enough. And again, when the ending does come and things are resolved, it felt almost cheap.

The core message here is that someone won’t magically appear to help you out of your trouble. You have to save yourself! And in this case, it’ two sisters saving themselves and each other. I can’t find any fault with that message but I still think it could have been wrapped in a better story.

MY RATING: 5,5 – A little meh, but still kind of good