Jenny Moyer – Flashfall

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

flashfallFLASHFALL
by Jenny Moyer

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

First sentence: Caves make good hiding places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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

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Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

I got this book in a bookish subscription box (The Nerdy Bookworm Box), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it so soon after publication. Before you pick this up, know that it is NOT what the synopsis promises. It’s not a royal Battle Royale, a bloody fight between three siblings to the death. It is the preparation for that fight. That’s not a spoiler, trust me, that’s a fair warning that will make you enjoy the book more.

three-dark-crownsTHREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake

Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2016
Paperback: 407 pages
Series: Three Dark Crowns #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched.

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest.

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We are introduced, one after the other, to each of the three queens fighting for the throne of Fennbirn, a magical island about which way too little is learned over the course of 400 pages. Katherine, weak and fragile, has been raised as a poisoner but her gift has still not properly set in. She is basically tortured on a daily basis by her host family, the Arrons. They let venomous snakes bite her, feed her all sorts of poisonous food, in order to build up resistance. But Kat comes away from it mostly scared and broken and full of scars.
Arsinoe is a naturalist and, just like her sister, shows very little gift. She is still waiting for her animal familiar while her best friend (and host sister) Jules has one of the most powerful gifts ever seen on the island. Her chapters are the longest and most detailed, because Jules is as much a protagonist as Arsinoe is.
Mirabella, already famous throughout Fennbirn, is the only queen with a powerful elemental gift. She can controll storms, lightning, and even fire. But she lives secluded and under constant surveillance by the priestesses of the Temple.

Three dark queens
are born in a glen,
sweet little triplets
will never be friends

Three dark sisters
all fair to be seen,
two to devour
and one to be Queen

So much for the set-up. Three Dark Crowns follows these three young queens as well as some side characters in alternating chapters and although they are all supposed to be different, the storylines and characters are all extremely similar. First of all, the side characters could easily be interchanged without anyone noticing. Most of them are just names thrown around when convenient. One side character, Luke, seems to be able to do whatever is needed for the plot at the moment. He is a librarian but also cooks and runs a coffee shop? Turns out, he can also sew dresses… and that’s as far as his personality goes. The others are literally just names, most of which I couldn’t keep apart because there is no description, not even age or relations. Sometime in the middle, I finally figured out that Madrigal is Jules’s mother, not some friend of the girls. I am the first to accept that I sometimes read inattentively, but this is not my fault, this is bad writing. Each girl gets a love interest, each is pushed or driven by a mentor figure, each has at least one friend to confide in. They do have different hair styles, which seems to be more important than giving their friends a past or character traits.

As mentioned, Arsinoe gets the most pages, Katherine gets by far the least. But I found her to be the most interesting character because she has it the hardest. But once the scheming Natalia, her mentor, throws young Pietyr in Kat’s path, this book is all about romance. Never mind why three queens have to battle to the death or how eating poisonous stuff without dying is going to help Katherine survive. Let’s talk about kissing because young adults are all hormonal idiots who want to read about kissing and nothing else. ARGH!!

Arsinoe, Jules, and Mirabella also get a love interest and, sure, some of that creates conflict, but come on! That’s not what it said on the tin. Do we really need another stupid love triangle? Kendare Blake tried to balance the r

omance with female friendships but by leaving the queens’ friends (except Jules) such bland, blank papers, the friendship becomes virtually worthless. Jules and Arsinoe are a great team, but Mirabella’s two friends, although one of them gets a story arc of a sort, are just stand-ins so Mirabella has someone to talk to. It’s a wasted opportunity if I ever saw one. However, Arsinoe’s storyline also contains the most world building and the best characters and development. Low magic, as the islanders call it, was mentioned plenty, although its roots are left unexplored. Joseph and Billy, the only two men with personality, also appear in Arsinoe’s story. This makes me belive that we are meant to like her best – so if the other two die, I won’t be surprised, but it is a rather obvious and cheap way of going about it. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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Finally, at the very end, the plot actually moves foward. The queens each have to demonstrate their gifts in a ceremony that marks the beginning of the year in which they are to kill each other until only one queen remains. And shit goes down during that ceremony! Before that, the powerful houses of Fennbirn scheme around a bit, but because apparently young people are also too dumb to get subtlety, it’s all very obvious and the schemers are not very smart. Again, the villains of this story are also interchangeable. Put a serrated blade in ones hand and icy blond hair on the other, they are still basically the same person.

The ending did have two twists, one of which became sort of predictable while reading the novel. The other, I will happily admit, took me by surprise and actually made me say WTF! But is a two-page shocking twist enough to justify 400 pages of lame romance and a very unbalanced view of three sisters thrown into a terrible situation? I mean, Kendare Blake wrote the book she wanted to write, not one I wanted to read. But if you have a premise so interesting why would you not explore that at all? And if you build a world with so many strange rules, different sets of magics, why not mention anything about that? It makes me think that none of it is actually thought-through, but just window-dressing for some teen romances.

Fennbirn, for example, is super intersting but we only get glimpses of why when the delegations from the mainland arrive. It’s also a much smaller island than I originally thought (there is a cool map in the beginning of the book) because a character can walk, in a few days, over half the island. The magical gifts that the people of Fennbirn posses also don’t make much selse. Elementals are cool, and Naturalists are also interesting. But Poisoners, the only really non-staple fantasy magic, are pretty useless in my eyes. Anyone can learn how to mix a poison and, sure to survive poisoning is useful but what is the point? What’s the greater scheme of things? Why are poisoner queens so powerful when – forgive me – an Elemental can control the elements and a Naturalist might have a seriously vicious animal familiar. How would a battle between such people look? Well, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll have to wait for the sequel because this book ends just before the battle begins.

As many flaws as this story has, I did enjoy the read. I can’t tell you why because when I think about it, everything is wrong, there are plot holes all over the place, the characters mostly aren’t very good and the romances drifted into soap opera territory really quickly. But it was still fun. The chapters are short, I kept being pushed by the hope of learning more about the world, and I did grow to like the queens, although Katherine remains rather pale because she appears so little in the book. Look, it’s better than some other cliché and trope-ridden YA but not by a large margin. There are good ideas here, I only have to wait for the sequel to see if they actually come to anything. And at least, after reading this, I’m ready for some smart science fiction. I shall take delight in the lack of tropey YA love triangles!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

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Second opinions:

 

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E.D. Baker – The Wide-Awake Princess

I’m going through a weird phase right now, where I pick up a book I’ve been looking forward to, can’t get into it, find something else that I randomly start and can’t stop. In my attempt to get into a normal start-a-book-finish-a-book rhythm, I took a deliberate break and read this little middle grade book as a sort of palate cleanser.

wide awake princess

THE WIDE-AWAKE PRINCESS
by E.D. Baker

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2010
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Wide-Awake Princess #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: “We can’t let it happen again,” Queen Karolina said, dabbing at the tears that glistened in her deep blue eyes.

In this stand-alone fairy tale, Princess Annie is the younger sister to Gwen, the princess destined to be Sleeping Beauty. When Gwennie pricks her finger and the whole castle falls asleep, only Annie is awake, and only Annie-blessed (or cursed?) with being impervious to magic-can venture out beyond the rose-covered hedge for help. She must find Gwen’s true love to kiss her awake.

But who is her true love? The irritating Digby? The happy-go-lucky Prince Andreas, who is holding a contest to find his bride? The conniving Clarence, whose sinister motives couldn’t possibly spell true love? Joined by one of her father’s guards, Liam, who happened to be out of the castle when the sleeping spell struck, Annie travels through a fairy tale land populated with characters both familiar and new as she tries to fix her sister and her family . . . and perhaps even find a true love of her own.

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What if Sleeping Beauty’s parents didn’t behave like fools twice? So they messed up their firstborn’s fairy gifts and the evil fairy made sure that Gwen will prick her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns 16.  Except a good fairy made sure that, instead of dying, Gwen only falls asleep for one hundred years, and can be kissed awake by her true love to lift the curse. Sleeping Beauty as we know it. But with their second child, Annie, the king and queen took care to make smarter choices for her christening gifts. Instead of beauty and a gorgeous singing voice, Annie’s got the ability to resist magic of any kind.

I really liked the beginning of this story. Annie is (almost) the only person in her kingdom who isn’t enhanced by magic, so next to her beautiful sister and mother, she looks rather plain. Princes and princesses are all beautified and seem perfect because when magic is easy to obtain, why not be pretty, right? This puts Annie in a difficult spot from the start because she is a princess but she looks … normal. Her personal fairy gift/curse to resist all magic comes with another caveat. Whenever she is too close to or touches somebody enchanted, their magic fades. Annie’s mother doesn’t want Annie anywhere near because then her own beauty will fade. The same goes for Gwen.

So Annie spends time with people who don’t care about looks – she talks to the palace servants, learns how to ride a horse from the stable boys, chats with the guards, and silently suffers being so distant from her family. It’s a great set-up for a novel, even if it hammers its message in with a sledgehammer later on.

Despite the king and queen’s careful precautions, the curse on Gwen does come to pass, everyone falls asleep and only Annie is unaffected because magic doesn’t work on her. She teams up with Liam, the palace guard who was outside the castle when the curse struck, and goes on an adventure to round up all the princes in the kingdom. She’s not sure who is her sister’s true love, so just in case her fiancé isn’t, bringing a few more princes for safety sounds like a good plan. On their adventures, they meet a version of Hansel and Gretel, the frog prince, and many other characters who seem familiar but original.

The idea is cute enough, as are the brief encounters with fairies, princes, princesses, and lost children. But there is absolutely no depth to this story whatsoever. I haven’t read middle grade books in a long while and I don’t really know how forgiving to be about the on-the-nose message. You see, Annie is special because she does boy-stuff (riding) and non-royal stuff (talking to servants like they’re actual human beings). Apparently, you can only be kind if you’re not beautiful because everyone who is pretty – usually by magic fairy gift – happens to be a major douchebag. The princes, even the ones who seem okay at first glance, turn out to be shallow, money-grabbing idiots, the girls are even shallower, obsessed with their looks and being royalty and with no interests of their own.

At times, it seemed that Annie and Liam are the only two decent people in the entire kingdom. Some side characters are at least not complete jerks, but have one character flaw or another that makes them not as good as the protagonists. In the tournament for prince Andreas’ hand especially, I loathed the side characters. Except for Annie, all the participating girls were shallow, unlikable idiots. The “tests” in that tournament included things such as horse riding, how to keep dancing when your partner stomps on your feet, and eating food. Because learn this lesson, young girls: You must be able to eat everything and enjoy it! Except we all know you must also be pretty and take care of your body… there’s a real-world dilemma for you. But since only Annie masters all these tasks, because she is the protagonist and thus perfect, it’s not really something that encourages readers to think for themselves.

On the one hand, I’m willing to forgive the stereotypes and tropes, because this was written for very young kids. On the other, I always think children – even small ones – should be challenged and treated like real people. Just because somebody is young doesn’t mean they can’t grasp big ideas or see that treating someone badly just because they’re not beautiful is wrong. This isn’t the most thought-provoking children’s book out there, but it does mix up fairy tales in a really cute way. So ignoring the extremely black and white characters and the predictably convenient plot, I have to say the book still offered me a couple of hours of brainless fun.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish

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Kurtis J. Wiebe – Rat Queens Volume 3: Demons

I remember when I discovered Rat Queens and fell in love with the comic so much, I read it twice in a row. The second volume went through a change of artist but still kept most of the humor, heart, and great friendships intact. This third volume is a complete disappointment and marks the spot where I’m only willing to try one more issue to see if the series is worth continuing. Yep… it was that bad.

rat queens demons

RAT QUEENS VOLUME 3: DEMONS
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Artwork: Tess Fowler
Colors: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letters: Ed Brisson

Published by: Image, 2016
Paperback: 160 pages
Series: Rat Queens #3
My rating: 4/10

Having survived the end of the world, the Queens follow Hannah back to where it all began: Mage University. A long perilous journey awaits the Rat Queens as they attempt to find out what happened to Hannah’s father while battling their own demons.

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After some interesting revelations in the last collection, we don’t get a second of time to catch up. Our girls are on their way to Hannah’s old school… to do… something. Once they arrive, Hannah is confronted with her past – which is no surprise considering that people there know her from way back when. Conveniently, however, all the others are also haunted by their demons, which all show up sooner or later. Most of this felt incredibly cheap, like somebody desperately grasping for plot and drama in a comic series that used to be all about fun and games and swear words.

Apart from the thin plot, the writing was really bad this time. I sometimes felt like I’d skipped a page because the cuts between scenes were so sharp, the plot jumped around all over the place, and things that were supposed to have impact left me completely cold. Plus, there is nothing of these four girls’ shining wonderful characters coming through. Hannah seems like a different person, Betty gets some shitty backstory that nobody needed (but I guess everyone has to have a dark past, nobody can just be what they seem to be) and there is no banter between them going on.

The change of setting comes with a change of costumes, some of which look nice, but again gave me the feeling that I’m not dealing with the girls I fell in love with but four imposters standing in their place. I frequently caught myself thinking “That’s so not like Hannah” or “Vi would never wear this” and wondering very, very much what the point of this collection was.  The artist change (again!) did have positive aspects however. The characters’ faces look like themselves again, although in certain panels Tess Fowler turned up the cute to eleven. Hannah isn’t cute. She may be gorgeous but what’s with the Disney eyes? I do prefer her artwork greatly to Sejic, who made the Rat Queens look much too harsh and pointy. Wenn done, Tess Fowler – I’m so sorry you didn’t have a better story to work with.

rat queens demons panels

The plot isn’t really advanced all that much. It dwells on Hannah’s past and on who her parents are, there is no mention of Sawyer or indeed much recognition of the girl’s current home town and friends and foes and love interests. I honestly felt like in a TV show where I accidentally skipped an episode and then the current episode was choppy and jumped over important scenes. Also, with new actors who are trying to put their own spin on the characters… it was a jarring experience that alternately made me want to cry and throw the comic across the room.

Rat Queens is a comic that could have just rolled with what made it so great. Female friends fighting demons and orcs and goblins for money. Being foul-mouthed, drinking and partying, and bantering is what they do best. Now it’s all angsty and pseudo-dramatic, the girls fight and behave out of character, and it’s just missing that spark. But what Demons is missing the most is the thing that made me re-read the first collection right after finishing it: Fun! This was just no fun. It felt like work, trudging through page after page of blahblah with no substance, re-hashed jokes, and weird afterlife-y parallel worlds… I just don’t even care anymore.

I’ll give Kurtis J. Wiebe one more collection to change my mind, otherwise I’ll just re-read Sass & Sorcery, ignore all  new issues, and pretend this never happened.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

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Seanan McGuire – Every Heart a Doorway

This is a severe case of over-hyped book. Tor.com had been advertising this book for months, it is the only one of the novellas to come out in hardcover as well as paperback and e-book, and that does send a clear message to readers. It has Seanan McGuire’s name on it, so it must be a hit. Except even a writer with a fanbase as large as McGuires can write something bad every once in a while.

every heart a doorway

EVERY HEART A DOORWAY
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: Tor.com, 2016
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Every Heart a Doorway #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
No matter the cost.

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Here’s an idea that is so perfect, so full of potential that just thinking of it makes me weep a little. Children disappear to magic lands, parallel universes, the underworld, a palace of clouds to have adventures, fall in love, come of age – only to be thrown out eventually. And they never truly find their way back into our world because that other place is what they think of as home. In the hands of Cat Valente, this idea would have probably turned into a whole series of beautiful, heartbreaking books, but Seanan McGuire (as capable a writer as she is) just is no Cat Valente.

The entire novella felt very cold. I can’t put my finger on why, that’s just the general feeling I took away from it. Nancy arrives at her new school, where everybody is somewhat like her. Everybody went to a different place and had to come back. They are all looking for their door to return to where they were happiest. I suppose this could all be taken as a metaphor for not wanting to grow up and trying to find your way back into childhood, but you know me – I always take magic seriously and I take these trips to other worlds literally.

As this novella is the first of a series, maybe McGuire will expand on all the things that were lacking here in later stories. But with a school full of world-travelling kids, there is just so much potential for cool stuff. To be fair, McGuire does show us some of the madness. Nancy went to the underworld (thus the frequent mentions of pomegranates), others went into a rainbow world, yet others lived in a zombie-infested place full of violence, or one full of vampires. But no  matter how gruesome or uninviting their world may seem to us outsiders, they all want to go back. The bit I found quite annoying was that there is a specific classification of worlds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There are logic and nonsense worlds, which can be subdivided into even more categories. Nancy – as any good protagonist would – asks about this in the beginning but then seems to lose interest and drops the topic. I feel that if you go to the trouble of building your own system for a multiverse, it would be nice to let the readers get a small glimpse of it.

An even bigger problem for me was the complete lack of emotional impact. I can live without world building, without logic (this is fantasy, after all), even without much plot. But I need characters to hold on to, to understand, to feel something. Nancy’s slightly catatonic state was completely understandable. I don’t quite get why in her underworld, standing as still as a statue was so important, but okay, let’s roll with it. Nancy’s roomate Sumi may have been a sterotypical cloud cuckoo lander, but at least she brought some movement into a very slow, boring plot.

Speaking of plot. I expected a sort of anti-Harry Potter, a story of a girl feeling misplaced in this world, wanting to go back to the world of the dead, now finding her way in a school with others who feel just as much that they don’t belong. An anti-magic school if you like. But the book changes its mind and turns into a murder mystery. Which, okay fine. Except I didn’t really care about any of the murder victims or even about who did it and why. When the characters are so pale that they are barely cardboard, I find it difficult to care about their fate.

every heart a doorway cover detail

Instead of staying on the topic that drew me in (I know it’s not the author’s job to cater to my very specific needs, although I often wish it were :D), focusing on how these children had to leave a world behind, leave their adventures and – I assume – friends, and finding a place in this world, this novella deals mostly with the murders of several students and, occasionally, with people’s sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, that’s about the only positive thing I got out of this  – some character diversity. I did like both Kade and Nancy, although Nancy remains pretty pale throughout, but this may be due to how the underworld shaped her to be.

I’m not a writer, so I can’t put my finger on what exactly would have to be done differently to make this story good. But it just left me completely cold from beginning to end. Looking back at the entire novella, I don’t see the point. I didn’t like the plot, didn’t care for the characters, and the ending had no impact whatsoever. In fact, for a while I thought Nancy was going to kill herself to return to the underworld, which – drastic as it may be – would at least have been something proactive, something that comes with a cost, and would return her to the underworld. You can guess that this did not happen… The ending that did happen cheapens the entire point of the book.

All my problems with this book may very well be my own fault for having set my expectations too high or for having misunderstood the book description, but that doesn’t change that I really disliked Every Heart a Doorway. To me it felt like Seanan McGuire was trying to write a Cat Valente story and failed miserably. I’ll give the next book in the series a chance, but if that turns out to be equally boring, I will probably stick to McGuire’s other books.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

 

Sarah J. Maas – A Court of Thorns and Roses

Oh boy.  This is my first book by Sarah J. Maas and I didn’t dislike it. But I’m terribly sad to see the same old tropes used in the same old ways yet again. Two thirds of this book are predictable, generic, and kind of silly, but then the last third suddenly kicks off the plot and it actually gets really good. I hope the next volume doesn’t take so long to build up some steam.

court of thorns and roses

A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES
by Sarah J. Maas

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2015
Ebook: 432 pages
Series: A Court of Thorns and Roses #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice.

No mortal would dare venture beyond the borders of their world to Prythian, a forbidden kingdom of faeries. But Feyre’s survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill, and when she spots a deer being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. Killing the predator comes at a price though – her life, or her freedom.
Dragged to Prythian, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre’s presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, the faerie lands becomes an even more dangerous place.

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You know you can bait me with fairy tales pretty easily, but if you throw in fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast) and a riff on the ballad Tam Lin, my defences are disabled and I absolutely must have that book. Sarah J. Maas has been hyped like crazy which didn’t hurt my instinct to buy this book and start a new series.

The problem with this – and many books of its kinds (yes, there is a kind) – is that it focuses so much on a ridiculous romance and doesn’t really have any plot. Let me sum it up for you. Young girl hunts for food, kills a wolf that’s not really a wolf, invoking a treaty between humankind and fairies. She must spend her life in the fairy lands in exchange for the life she took. Her kidnapper/landlord is insanely beautiful, kind, protective, saves her from danger a couple of times, gives her a nice gift, and – poof! – they are in eternal love. If you consider this a spoiler, I am sorry. But I’d hazard a guess that most people pick this up specifically for that romance and would be pretty pissed if the protagonists didn’t fall in love.

Which, of course, follows in the sad little footsteps of Twilight. An ancient supernatural being (who may look like he’s 26 but has the experience and memory of someone hundreds of years old!) falls in desperate love with a human child. I get it, I really do. It’s wishfullfilment. We all want to be special, we all want to know that the regular, clumsy, non-special human being we are can be someone’s special little snowflake, can melt the heart of a being so beautiful and pure. But it’s sooooo boring. Feyre isn’t special in any way. She is a sympathetic protagonist but even if she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, I don’t see why Tamlin or anyone else would bend over backwards to be her lover.

I would have forgiven much of this if the romance had been well written, if there were tension between Feyre and Tamlin, and if the actual romance scenes were the explosion of feelings they are supposed to be. But while plenty of tension is built up, Feyre and Tamlin kind of… talk it away in the most unromantic, unsexy fashion I could think of. The sex scene was actually embarrassingly flowery… (if you want a good one, pick up Uprooted).

Much more interesting than this generic teen romance is the politics of the fairy courts and the history between humans and fairies. The world-building stays far, far in the background for most of the story, because romance, but when the villain is finally introduced in the last third of the book, when some clunky exposition gives us a bigger picture of this world, that’s when things start getting interesting. It’s not well done, by any means, but at least there’s something there other than two gorgeous people pining for each other.

And you know what? When I’d pretty much given up hope about the plot, things actually start happening. Feyre goes through some fucked up shit in order to save the people she cares about and, in the process, gets to know two really intriguing characters. Lucien had been intriguing for the entire story, but Rhysand is a different story entirely. Coming from the Night Court, I immediately thought of him as this story’s Hades (and I cannot resist a good Hades and Persephone story, no matter how hard I try). But what makes him so exciting is that you can’t be sure about his motives. Is he evil, is he good, is he just a dick, playing Feyre for his own gain? I don’t really care, because reading about him was just fun!

So the ending gained a lot of brownie points for being exciting and dangerous and full of action. But – and this is a big but – it also involves a riddle that is so ridiculously easy and obvious that I guessed it the moment it was posed. So yeah, I’m good with riddles, but even Feyre has should have guessed it in the time she had to mull it over. The fact that she doesn’t makes her seem much stupider than she is supposed to be. Oh well. The actual ending was, again, predictable and tropey. I won’t spoil this for anyone still interested but there was a lot of eye-rolling going on when I read it.

Because I’m reviewing this for the Fairy Tale Retellings challenge, I should mention the use of fairy tales a little more. The mentions of Beauty and the Beast were easily discovered and done well enough. Tamlin wears a mask at all time (giving him a Phantom of the Opera vibe) and can change into animal form, so he is sometimes literally a beast. There is a curse, which is all I’ll say on the matter, and it takes the fairy tale’s curse and gives it a gentle twist, just enough to fit into this particular world. The ballad Tam Lin makes an appearance mostly through Tamlin’s name and the fact that there is a fairyland. This is one of the story’s strong points. It takes fairy tales, but doesn’t stick to them too much, rather using them to build an original world, peopled with gorgeous creatures and its own internal politics.

I hope that the next book will expose us to more of these fairy politics, show us some of the fairy courts, and do a little better on the romance and pacing. This wasn’t great and it took a really long time to get started, but it was an enjoyable enough read for me to probably pick up the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

Christina Henry – Alice

I love Alice in Wonderland. Seeing its familiar characters used in different ways sounded really good. The only adaptation/retelling I’ve read so far was the less-than-stellar Looking Glass Wars. Christina Henry started out her horror version of Alice’s crazy adventures really well, only to lose steam along the way.

aliceALICE
by Christina Henry

Published by: Penguin, 2015
Ebook: 304 pages
Series: Alice #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars.

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

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Alice lives in a mental asylum with only her neighbour Hatcher for company, whom she talks to through a little mouse hole in the wall. When the asylum burns down, however, and the two escape into the city, their memories of a life prior to being locked up come back and reveal all the horrors of who they really are.

Christina Henry has a lot of talent for building up tension. Alice and Hatcher are both suffering amnesia in the beginning of the book, but snippets come back to them, leaving the reader intrigued (and shocked!) about their past. Alice’s story is not that hard to guess but its initial horror almost drowns in the filthy pit of evil that is the Old City and the inhabitants we meet along the journey to come.

This version of Wonderland – or this secondary world based on Wonderland – is separated into  New City and  Old City. New City is where rich people live, where Alice grew up and was declared insane and locked away. Old City is the dirty underbelly, where – and here’s a big, gigantic problem with this book – every single man is a rapist, murderer, thief, cannibal, torturer or some other terrible thing. Seriously, not a single person is just a normal human being. As for the ones who don’t get a chance to be evil, they are victims of the very men desribed above. In fact, Christina Henry’s focus (obsession?) on rape and torture goes so far that any shock value these scenes should have had, flies right out the window. Whenever Alice and Hatcher reach a new place, I came to expect it to be (A) littered with bodies, or (B) full of naked girls being raped or bought or sold or kept as slaves. Also – it’s only ever girls. Nobody trades with young men, apparently.

So yeah, I get it, this is meant to be a dark story. But the amount of blood, gore, and disgusting torture devices was just too much. If there is nothing to contrast the horror, and no time spent on showing some variety in the Old City’s inhabitants, then I’m left with the impression that it was put in there as gratuitous shock-material. None of it, however, holds any power because it is so obviously put in there only to be shocking. The plot would have worked much better if some of the evil gang lords of Old City weren’t so very evil, and so very obvious about it. They are not characters, they are stand-ins. Little bosses before you reach the end boss. With the one exception of Cheshire, all the baddies Alice and Hatcher have to defeat are so evil that our heroes don’t have to have any qualms or remorse about brutally murdering them. Why bother with questions of morality when everything is so wonderfully black and white. I do have to say that Cheshire was a ray of light in that you can’t ever be sure if he is good or evil, on Alice’s side or on that of some underground boss – or simply working for his own gain. He’s one of the reasons I kept on reading.

The second reason is Hatcher. As you may guess from the name, this is the Mad Hatter, named Hatcher because of his favored weapon. He was a multi-layered character with a sad past, fighting with bouts of insanity, battling against his hunger for killing. In Hatcher, Christina Henry actually shows off some of her talent. Unfortunately, she didn’t grant Alice that favor…

Another problem with this book was the pacing. It starts out so good! Thrown into the dark, I wanted to find out how this Wonderland works, who is who, where characters were hiding or what new role they have taken on. Christina Henry scatters her references beautifully, some very obvious, others more hidden, and it was a joy to discover them.  But what kept me reading was the threat of the Jabberwocky as well as an interest in Hatcher and his memories. There is so much build-up to every single revelation or boss fight (I’m just calling it that now) – and then the author just lets us down.

Alice and Hatcher travel a lot and their journeys from place A to place B take quite a while. The good thing is, this time is spent showing us more of their characters (mostly Hatcher), the bad thing is – if you make me read 50 pages of travelogue (interrupted by attempted rape and consecutive murder), then at least make the big fight worthwile. But every single time they reach a destination, they face their current opponent and you’d expect an intricately choreographed fight scene – or at least a clever bit of magic – then everything is over before you know it. Unspectacular, uninteresting, unoriginal.

Which all leads back to Alice being Alice. The fact that all the female characters in this book are either sex slaves, caged up, tortured, or dead, is bad enough. But the protagonist is the most passive creature in this story. Alice is dragged along by Hatcher (who is much more interesting, simply by merit of doing stuff), follows other people, does as she is told, and when she finally does act, it is by accident. Only in two scenes – I counted – does she do anything pro-active. And these scenes, you guessed it, take about three sentences to be over. Whoop-dee-do!

And then there comes the final, climactic moment of catharsis – when Alice gets to face her own torturer – and she STILL doesn’t do anything. After that, it’s time to meet the end boss and, hopefully defeat him. That’s the whole point of this story, after all. But the climax is no climax at all, the final fight isn’t a fight (not even a struggle), and the ending is as predictable as uninteresting.

I am really sad that a book that started out with so much potential drifted off into gratuitous grimdark territory, losing sight of its story and just going for gore and blood. I may give Christina Henry a second chance with the next book in this series but if that’s a mess as well, my patience is over. The only reason I finished this one is because Hatcher was an excellent character and the references to Alice in Wonderland were actually very well done.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Meh! Great beginning turned very sour.

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Second opinions:

Charlie N. Holmberg – The Glass Magician

There was really no reason for me to continue the Paper Magician series after the first book, except wanting a bit more of the same and needing another book that doesn’t require my brain to be too awake while reading. The second part of Holmberg’s trilogy was better when it came to pacing, but pretty bad when it came to other things.

glass magiciaTHE GLASS MAGICIAN
by Charlie N. Holmberg

Published by: 47North, 2014
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Paper Magician #2
My rating: 5/10

First sentence: A late summer breeze wafted through the open kitchen window, making the twenty tiny flames upon Ceony’s cake dance back and forth on their candlewicks.

Three months after returning Magician Emery Thane’s heart to his body, Ceony Twill is well on her way to becoming a Folder. Unfortunately, not all of Ceony’s thoughts have been focused on paper magic. Though she was promised romance by a fortuity box, Ceony still hasn’t broken the teacher-student barrier with Emery, despite their growing closeness. When a magician with a penchant for revenge believes that Ceony possesses a secret, he vows to discover it…even if it tears apart the very fabric of their magical world. After a series of attacks target Ceony and catch those she holds most dear in the crossfire, Ceony knows she must find the true limits of her powers…and keep her knowledge from falling into wayward hands.

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Ceony is well into her apprenticeship and Charlie Holmberg doesn’t have to waste any time explaining her magic system again, so it’s straight into the action with this book and, to my surprise, there’s enough time to introduce new characters and fill Ceony’s world with a bit more than just herself and her master magician. Ceony’s friend Delilah, while mostly a bland stand-in for glass magicians who lacks personality, is nonetheless a nice addition to the very small cast. Through her, Ceony learns a lot about what glass magicians do – and it was these very ideas that I found genuinely interesting. Glass magicians use mirrors not only as make-shift telephones (or rather, Victorian Google Hangouts) but also as portals, and this offers a whole new world for a fun plot to develop.

About the plot… Ceony has to discover that her actions in The Paper Magician have consequences and, despite having bested the evil excisioner in the first book, there are others who want to use Ceony for their own plans. There is a magical terrorism attack right at the beginning, Ceony behaves like a proper idiot (seriously!), and there’s a continuation of her romance with her teacher, a romance still as stale as old soup. Emery Thane keeps being kind to Ceony, Ceony calls him by his first name (which makes everyone go: Manners!), there is still no visible reason for these two to be so in love with each other. They just are. Well, there is one chapter from Thane’s point of view in which he muses about why he is in total True Love with Ceony, and one of the main reasons (hold on to something, please!), is that she’s a good cook. I mean fine, I enjoy a good meal as much as the next person, but I don’t fall in love with the chefs at my favorite restaurants…

Aglass magicias much as I loved the idea of glass magic, of Ceony and Delilah running off to secretly portal themselves to and from places, the main plot sets the scene for a very obvious twist. And this plot twist could have been pretty good if it weren’t so damn easy to discover for both the readers and Ceony herself. I simply can’t believe that all the generations of magicians before Ceony have been so uninterested, so strict with the rules of magic, so lame that they didn’t try out things simply for the fun of it. Because the big secret that Ceony discovers… about 500 people should have accidentally discovered it before her. This doesn’t make some action-y scenes any less exciting or fun, but the book also still suffers from the same problems the first volume had. With the added bonus that the magic system in general is not new anymore, so glass magic is really this book’s strongest point.

The time period is all over the place again, and a quick trip to Belgium ensures that Holmberg exposes her lack of research even more. Who cares what the fashion was like in England at the time, or how people spoke, how they lived? We meet Ceony’s family who seems more American than the poor English family they’re supposed to be. There’s more casual talk of guns and fashion and make-up bags, and it didn’t gel at all because everything was picked together without the slightest bit of thought on the author’s part. If it were only language and skirt lengths I could have overlooked it, but this extends to class differences, to women’s roles in life, to everything. I mean, women can become magicians without any problem or social stigma – we have seen this in the first book – but then even if they have their own profession, they’re still expected to mainly exist for feeding their husband. Which of course they need… because why?

Another thing I noticed was that one of the villains of the story is Indian. He is the only Indian man I have met in these books so far, and he is a psychopath crazy killer… Given that the rest of the cast is overwhelmingly white, I wonder at the decision to make the creepy villain Indian. There are also some strange comments throughout the books the expose stereotypes galore. Any man who can’t cook, accodring to Ceony,  needs a wife (because, gals, that’s our main job – feeding our husband), and she promptly decides to set up said man with her friend Delilah… never mind if they actually like each other. Ceony likes both, so naturally, they must be set up so Delilah can cook for him and he can.. erm… be a man I guess. I don’t know.

So you see, in many respects this book was worse than The Paper Magician, but being tired and exhausted and unable to think very hard at the moment, I decided to switch off the critical part (as well as most others) of my brain and focus on the plot and the action. And that is the one thing where the series has improved. I can’t say I like any of the characters much – with the exception of the paper dog Fennel, maybe – and the ones that I am supposed to like are so cardboard that it makes no difference if they live or die. At this point, I wasn’t as excited to jump into the last instalment of the trilogy but they’re short books and I still hoped for some improvements. Spoiler alert: I should have stopped after this one.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

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Second opinions:

Kai Ashante Wilson – The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

This was really not my thing. It sounded like my thing, I started like it would be my thing, but then it drifted off into a territory only known as verbose, show-off-ish polysyllabic thesaurus-world. If the plot had been interesting that could have saved the book. As it is, the first of Tor.com’s novellas (I’m still buying and reading all the others) was not a good start to the lineup.

sorcerer of the wildeepsTHE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS
by Kai Ashante Wilson

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 224 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The merchants and burdened camels went on ahead into the Station at Mother of Waters.

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors’ artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.
The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.
The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

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Oh, this sounded so good. “Hair that drinks the sunlight” – yes, please! Demigods abandoned on Earth? Even more yes, please. To be fair, this novella started out really good. Demane is introduced and through him, we meet his caravan brothers, a group of diverse and thoroughly interesting men who I thought I’d love to follow through this story. But then something else happened.

The author frequently loses himself in long rants, filled with big words that I either had to look up or just skimmed over. Demane expresses himself equally but instead of adding a layer to the pretty intriguing world-building, this detracted from the story because it was so inconsistent. One chapter would be written in beautiful prose, not simple, but readable, then suddenly we’d go off on a tangent expressed entirely in words of 5 syllables or more. I didn’t understand the purpose of this and felt very much that the author just wanted to show off how well he knows his language. That’s really cool for you, Mr. Wilson, but it didn’t really work for your story.

So the prose was already a big hurdle for me which, granted, may be due to my not being a native speaker. But I read big books with big words and don’t consider myself to struggle with the language. This was unintelligible at times. Which leads to me still not quite knowing if I missed a part because the language threw me out of the story or because it’s actually missing. There are scenes that are interrupted mid-sentence (which I find pretty cool), there are flashbacks and there are memories, all thrown somewhere in between the continuing main plot. I found it incredibly hard to follow where, in the time-line, I was at any given moment. It was hard to find a red line to follow, to hold on to a character or the plot, because within a matter of paragraphs, I’d be thrown into the past or the future or a tangent memory anyway.

In the Wildeeps, a monster is said to reside, one so terrifying that the toughest of people are afraid of it. The blurb hints at that, and also at Demane possible having to make a sacrifice in order to save his lover, the Captain. I really like that idea, but again, the execution was so confusing and incoherent, I couldn’t even tell you what exactly happened. There is a monster, yes, and it comes with a pretty nice plot twist, but other than that, I couldn’t say I cared about much of anything that happened in this story. This may also be due to the fact that Demane’s relationship with the captain may be mentioned a lot, but we’re not shown enough how these two love each other.

There are so many hints and beginnings of great things here that were simply dropped in favor of purple prose descriptions. I have nothing against big words – hell, my favorite author is Cat Valente and she’s a walking, talking thesaurus – but if they don’t paint pictures, if they don’t add to the story, why put them there? I wanted to learn more about the man whose hair absorbs sunlight for nourishment, about the love between him and Demane, about the other men in the caravan.

Reading this felt more like work than pleasure. I wanted to like this so, so much, and ended up not only bored but actually annoyed at the wasted opportunity. From what I’ve read on the internet, I’m almost alone with that opinion (which is fine, not every book is for everyone and all that), but I can happily declare that the second Tor.com novella, Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford charmed the living daylights out of me.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

Fran Wilde – Updraft

I try not to be a jerk about covers. Authors usually don’t have a say in their books’ outfits and Tor has a really, I mean really, good track record of providing excellent covers. But this is the type of book where the cover could have been helpful in providing information the text itself doesn’t. The picture is nice to look at but the illustration of the bone towers didn’t help me personally imagine how this society actually lives.  That’s not a cover’s job and the fact that I still don’t quite get how the bone towers work are the author’s failing (or that of my own imagination) but more on that problem below …

updraftUPDRAFT
by Fran Wilde

Published by: Tor, 1st September 2015
Ebook: 352 pages
Series: Bone Universe #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: My mother selected her wings as early morning light reached through our balcony shutters.

In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.
Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.

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If you bait me with “floating cities” long enough, I will bite. I will never fall out of love with Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia, the city in the sky, and I was quite intrigued by the idea of a city above the clouds built into living bone, a city that’s constantly growing.

Kirit Densira wants to become a trader like her mother. All she needs to do is pass her wingtest, a mix of flying, singing, history, and geography. But of course, things don’t go as planned and instead of living her dream and becoming her mother’s apprentice, Kirit is supposed to go to the Spire where the Singers live. It’s the largest bone tower, full of secrets and lies, because the Singers protect the city – sometimes from itself…

With such a wonderful premise, I expected great things. Obviously, the most interesting part that grabbed my attention right away is the world building. Living bone, okay. Gigantic living bone, obviously, if people live in and on it… towers grow new tiers and the more renowned inhabitants live higher up. So far so good. Except no. My very first problem with Updraft was that I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know how things worked, what they looked like. To say that the walls and floor of Kirit’s home are made of bone is one thing. But are they inside a gigantic bone? Do the tiers grow out of a central bone pillar? There are mentions here and there, especially when comparing and contrasting the Towers to the Spire and from that I gleamed some information, but I still don’t have a clear (or even fuzzy) picture in my head of what the Towers really look like.

Putting that big gripe aside, the beginning is really slow. Once Kirit takes her wingtest, however, the pacing gets better and better, and there is more than one scene that left me holding my breath in excitement. Then Kirit reaches the Spire and I felt like I’d been thrown into YA-cliché-land. A lot of things are obvious from the get go – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Kirit has to go through the typical (think Divergent, Harry Potter, what have you) introduction into the world-within-her-world. The Spire has its own rules, its own rituals, and in order to earn her wings as a Singer, Kirit has to go through a series of lessons and seriously freaky tests. This part was fantastic. It takes the tropes of its genre and just rolls with them, but because of the unusual setting, this was still a lot of fun to discover. Now there were some things I found rather ridiculous, but they were consistent with the world Fran Wilde has set up. Singers, unlike the rest of the city, can fly by night. Instead of vision, they use… a different trick. I wouldn’t really consider this a spoiler but for the very careful among you, I’ll leave it at that. That “trick” however made me giggle, it’s so silly.

Another thing I labeled with “silly” (and this bothered me way more) were the rules imposed upon everyone in the bone city. Naturally, living way above the clouds comes with a lot of danger. Should you fall, gods know how much time you have to contemplate your mistake. The towers are also plagued by the skymouths’ migration. These are giant, invisible monsters that open their mouth and eat whatever they can get. A Singer’s job, among others, is to protect the towers from these beasts. So it’s understandable that this society would have strict rules in order to keep people alive. But some  of their traditions are just dumb. When somebody challenges the Spire and dies in the process, it is tradition for the Singers to bring back the challenger’s wings to their family. Tradition dictates that the Singer must not speak during this, except for the traditional words which are always the same. I just can’t understand the purpose of forbidding someone to show kindness, to hug somebody, or even just say “sorry for your loss”. But breaking this tradition is considered betrayal and – guess what – you get executed for that shit! WHAT?!

updraft cover detail

As Kirit discovers the Spire from within, it is obvious that it harbors secrets. It is also obvious that the people in power aren’t really doing their thing for the good of the city. There are intrigues, and lies, and allegiances – this is not a plot twist. What could have been a twist would be the content of these secrets. It is clear from the beginning that the most powerful Singers are lying to the people, are doing something for their own benefit. But when that secret is revealed, I kept asking myself That’s it? Really?! – then, almost as a side plot, another thing about Kirit’s world is revealed that I found much more shocking, and none of the characters really gave a shit. They’re all about “Oh no, Kirit spoke when she wasn’t allowed. She is a traitor and must die”, and Kirit is all “The people must know the truth of this thing that will make almost no difference in their lives” – I just didn’t get it.

All of that said, the book still had that wonderful quality, that flow to it. I started reading a chapter and completely fell into it. The prose sucks you in and, like many good YA novels, just kind of holds on to you, making it hard to put the book down. At the end, all of the really interesting questions remain unanswered, even unasked by the characters, but I am not sure I’ll try the second in the series just to find out whose bones these people live on, why they grow, what they look like or what effect Kirit’s story had on the overall world. There were too many things I disliked or felt were missing from Updraft, and only overwhelmingly fantastic characters could have saved it. Kirit and the rest of them, however, are pretty bland fare, none of them really fleshed out, just a notch above cardboard.

Updraft wasn’t a bad book. Reading it was quite enjoyable at times, but mostly for the action and the descriptions of flight, using gravity, air, and winds in everyday life. The world building was too lacking for my taste, so I’ll wait for the first reviews to come in on the second book before I decide if I’ll give it a try.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 –  Okay with some great moments

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Second opinions (way more positive than mine):