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

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Farthest Shore

My reading of the Earthsea Cycle continues and I believe that I have made it past its most boring entry with this book. It’s not without merit – quite the opposite – but it’s a book that makes you work for it. The enjoyment isn’t right there on the page, you have to create it yourself. And, honestly, I struggled with that at times.

THE FARTHEST SHORE
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Bantam, 1972
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Earthsea #3
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: In the court of the fountain the sun of March shone through young leaves of ash and elm, and water leapt and fell through shadow and clear light.

Darkness threatens to overtake Earthsea: the world and its wizards are losing their magic. Despite being wearied with age, Ged Sparrowhawk – Archmage, wizard, and dragonlord – embarks on a daring, treacherous journey, accompanied by Enlad’s young Prince Arren, to discover the reasons behind this devastating pattern of loss. Together they will sail to the farthest reaches of their world – even beyond the realm of death – as they seek to restore magic to a land desperately thirsty for it.

Magic is disappearing from the world and young Prince Arren is sent by his father to Roke to ask the Archmage Sparrowhawk for guidance. Sparrowhawk, whom we know as Ged, of course, has heard similar tales of wizards losing their powers from different parts of Earthsea and takes young Arren on a quest to figure out what’s causing this terrifying development and how to fix it.

What follows are many very slow chapters that don’t offer a lot of plot on the surface but rather spend most time pondering about life, death, the meaning of ones actions, the need for a king to unify Earthsea, and all sorts of other stuff. Ged sometimes showers Arren in his wisdom and while the young man puts his loyalty into the older man, their relationship goes through a lot of stages before being truly comfortable. Watching them change from a sort of master/follower dynamic into something new was one of the aspects I liked about this book.
So these two men, one the Archmage who has restored the ring of Erreth-Akbe, the other a young prince with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders and no magic at all, travel on the trusty boat Lookfar to far places and devastated islands. They meet people who have been affected by the loss of magic and they see how differently they deal with this loss. Here, too, we got interesting glimpses into other places on Earthsea, but never enough to fully immerse myself. Whenever we’d reach a place and finally talk to someone, within a few pages we’d be gone again, off to the next island.

These were the parts of the novel where I felt I could (and maybe should?) read a lot into the story but I had no idea what the author truly wanted to say. There is a lot of talk about life and death, and how the two are sides of the same coin. But at the same time, this story is also about Arren growing up and learning that people he may idolize are just regular people as well, with flaws and quirks and a past. And while I appreciate these themes and I generally enjoy fiction that makes me think, in this book it was simply too much “let’s think hard about the meaning of life” and not enough adventure, magic, or getting to know characters. Or let’s put it differently, I wasn’t sure where things were going – were we going to fight some evil entity that sucks out all the magic from the world? Would there be an epic battle? Or would this story lead to a quiet, introspective ending where Arren has grown up to be a great, responsible man, and magic is returned because of the power of belief or something like that.

There were some passages that I found truly exciting. Ged and Arren meet a group of people who live on rafts on the open sea, never setting foot on land. Their culture and way of life was so interesting and I had so much fun getting to know them that this was probably my favorite chapter in the entire book. Similarly, I enjoyed their encounters with dragons, and the ending which, while not necessarily the kind of epic battle you’d expect, was moving and actually tied the whole book together neatly.

I feel like this may be the kind of book I will appreciate more on a re-read. It’s a clear departure from the first two novels which could be marketed as YA because I doubt children would have the patience for a story like this. It’s too slow-moving for that. And while I appreciate this work for what it says, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it very much. Mostly, it was a slog and I had to really work finding something to hold on to, something to care about. That makes it by no means a bad book and the ending made me want to continue the series even more, but as ratings go, I have to take pleasure into consideration. As middling as this may have been, I don’t think you’ll have to wait long for my next review. Tehanu is the Earthsea book I am most excited for!

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

 

The Granddaddy of Cyberpunk: William Gibson – Neuromancer

It took me over a decade to finally find enough motivation and push through this classic of science fiction. I remember trying it when I was still in school, then university, then I put it aside for a long time. But this whole self isolation thing is doing wonders for my motivation to catch up on things I should have read ages ago. And now I have finally done it, I have read this classic SF novel that not only coined the term “cyberspace” but also kickstarted an entire subgenre. Did it live up to the expectations? Well…

NEUROMANCER
by William Gibson

Published: Gollancz, 1984
Paperback: 297 pages
Series: The Sprawl #1
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Case was the sharpest data thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

I am so glad I finally read this book. Not that it was an entirely pleasant experience, mind you, but it was worth it for the feeling of accomplishment and for seeing where all those many ideas came from that I had encountered in books by other authors or movies or general popculture. Whatever I may think of his abilities as a writer of prose, there is no denying that Gibson has laid the groundwork for many other works of fiction, some of which ended up being much better than this.

Case is a depressed former console cowboy (read: hacker) whose last boss destroyed his synapses in such a way that Case can no longer jack into cyberspace. And without cyberspace, he’s just a drug addict with a death wish but not enough motivation to get the job done himself.  When a beautiful kick-ass lady named Molly shows up on his doorstep, offering him the job of a lifetime and his synapses repaired, he obviously says yes.
And so starts a sort of heist hacker story that has very little to do with plot or character and is all about ideas and technobabble.

You guys, the writing is so bad! I mean, maybe everything I disliked about it was intentional and it just doesn’t work for me but whether on purpose or not, it was just so bad! Let me elaborate.

The introduction of new settings or characters just happens. Suddenly people are there. They aren’t mentioned beforehand, the setting isn’t built up. It felt like any new and shiny idea that came to the author’s mind was promptly put on the page, without foreshadowing, without building things up, without even mentioning that something like this existed.
Mid-book, Case and Molly travel to a satellite city in orbit around Earth. Until that point, I had no idea that, in this world, there was a satellite, let alone one that is a sort of space Las Vegas. I was a bit stunned when Case got Space Sickness and had to backtrack a little to see if I’d missed anything. I hadn’t. Gibson just didn’t mention this teeny tiny bit of information until it was time for our heroes to go there. World building, you say? Who needs that?
The same goes for characters. On the one hand, I commend William Gibson for trusting his readers enough to understand what he’s trying to convey without having to repeat everything fifty times, but when you only mention a character by one name and then suddenly in a dialogue he gets called a different name we had never heard before, how am I supposed to know it’s the same guy??
The only distinguishing qualities the characters have other than their names is the way they talk. And oh boy, the dialogue was cringy. Not so much because of what was said but because how people talk. Molly, for some reason, needs to mention the name of whomever she’s speaking to in every single sentence. I kid you not, there would be lines like this (paraphrased by me)

“You’ve heard of him before, haven’t you, Case? Do you know how we will reach him, Case? Let’s just get outta here, Case.”

I am not exaggerating, this is how Molly talks. And don’t even get me started on the Rastafarian space ship pilot and the way his speech is portrayed. But seeing as the differences in speech are the only thing that give the characters something like a personality, I’m glad it was there. At least I knew who was talking…

Probably the scene that made me cringe the most and also gave me embarrassed giggles happened way at the beginning when Case had just met Molly and agreed to do the mysterious job with her. She waits for him in his room where they have a very short conversation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, they have sex. The scene goes literally from “oh, I thought you had a nice hotel room, why aren’t you there” to “she put her hand between his legs”. Thankfully, it was a short sex scene but it had me laughing nonetheless. Oh boy, it was so bad.

Which leads me to the characters as such . Because if there had been the slightest hint of a budding relationship, the protagonists getting together would have made perfect sense. But the characters are mostly cardboard and there is no chemistry between any of them. And not just romantic chemistry – there’s no sense of friendship or dislike or love or hate or anything! Gibson just didn’t put any focus on his characters and so I remained emotionally cut off from them. I didn’t much care what happened to them because I didn’t know them. Which takes a whole lot of tension out of the book, as you can imagine.
That’s not completely true though. There is a scene, later on in the book, that shows a bit more of Molly’s personality and that gives us some background about her life. That was literally the only instance where I found myself caring the slightest about someone.

I have mentioned characters and dialogue and lack of world building, but that’s not all. Because this being a Science Fiction Novel with Important Science Fictional Ideas, there has to be a lot of jargon. Well… if the technobabble the characters spew made sense in the 80ies, it didn’t make much sense to me now. In part, that is probably because some technology Gibson was predicting actually exists now, in altered forms, and others were ideas that never actual came to fruition. It’s not the author’s fault but this aspect does date the novel and makes it harder to read nowadays. Whatever his intentions, a lot of the time it just felt like he tried to sound super smart and tech-savvy without actually making sense. If you invent cyberspace for your novel, have the decency to at least make it work within your fictional world.

All of that said, there are some truly brilliant ideas in this book and the plot, once I started following it properly, was even somewhat exciting. I know, reading this now must be a vastly different experience from reading it when it first came out in the 1980s and I tried to be fair to the book and always keep in mind when the story was written. So I ignored mentions of a few Kilobytes being a lot and just rolled with it. That doesn’t mean I was any less annoyed with Gibson mentioning the size and position of every female character’s boobs. I mean, seriously. There are characters who show up once for a few lines and have no meaning for the plot, yet we just have to know that she had “small and high breasts”.
The idea of jacking into cyberspace must have been mindblowing then and I really love the idea of the Turing Police, which makes sure that no AI ever gained enough freedom and intelligence to do harm. He also mentions cryogenic sleep and tons of ways to modify your body – starting with Molly’s eyes that are covered by mirrors (like sunglasses) and give her all sorts of cool powers. These may all be things I’ve seen before but when this book came out, they were still new!

The plot takes a long time to get started but once it becomes clearer what the story is actually about, I really enjoyed watching it play out. The writing gets marginally better in the second half of the book but I can’t help but imagine what these ideas would have looked like if someone more capable or more careful had written this. Intellectually, I understand the importance of this novel and I respect what Gibson did for the genre as a whole. But there are plenty of older books that can still be read today and feel relevant as well as just readable. This is not one of them. And because I rate books based on my own enjoyment, I can’t rate it that highly. It may have been a groundbreaking piece of science fiction in 1984 but to me, reading this in 2020, it was first and foremost an example of bad writing.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay

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

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

EYES LIKE STARS
by Lisa Mantchev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples (emphasis mine):

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

Or take this:

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad