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

Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

Well, I’m glad that’s over. It doesn’t happen too often that a book I am extremely excited for turns out to be this disappointing. Is it me? I mean, everybody on the internet seems to love this book, including lots of people whose opinion I trust. And “lesbian necromancers in space” sounds super cool. And that cover is amazeballs! So why was this book such a mess? I’m going to try and explain why it didn’t work for me but, honestly, I just wish I could understand why so many other people love this so much.

GIDEON THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

Published by: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 448 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #1
My rating: 5/10

First line: In the myriadic year o our Lord – the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! – Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth is the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton.
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.

Where do I start… I supposed I’ll do it the same way Tamsyn Muir did: with the Ninth House and its current resident, swordswoman and frequent user of curse-words Gideon. We are introduced to Gideon and her home planet without being given any real information. Gideon is there, but she wants to get away because  everything sucks. Skeletons walk around and do chores, nuns pray to some god or whatever, and I still don’t really know what Gideon (or anyone else, for that matter) does all day. But things are bad so Gideon has divised a plan to escape – which is promptly foiled by her arch-enemy and only other teenager on the planet Harrowhark Nonagesimus. It’s difficult to learn anything useful about either the world or the characters in those few introductory chapters, but from what I gathered, Gideon hates Harrow with the heat of a thousand suns because Harrow has been torturing her psychologically since forever.

Then an invitation from the Emperor to the heirs of all Houses plus their cavaliers arrives. Cavaliers are something like bodyguarding, sword-fighting, sworn servants of the princes and princesses of the Nine Houses. Because reasons, Harrow takes Gideon on this trip to the First House because the challenge that awaits them there promises Lyctorhood – in essence, it makes you immortal and grants you great power and such. This is also not explained properly. But I guess the stakes don’t matter even if I’m supposed to root for these characters.

All of this is pretty boring. I know that’s not a great thing to say in a review, but the world-building is pretty much non-existant at this point, so all I did for the first chapters was try to find my footing, find something to hold on to, understand anything about this world. Alas, I didn’t. That may well be my own fault. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it. But another book came to mind that throws readers into a similarly not-explained world. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee also doesn’t bother to explain anything in the first chapters, but the big difference is that in that book, things become clearer as you read along. You figure out the characteristics of the different factions in that story, you get to know the characters and learn to care for them. All of that was missing from Gideon the Ninth. The only thing I mildly cared about was Gideon because she seemed like a bad-ass with a foul mouth and I have a soft spot for that kind of character.

The plot starts around the 40% mark of this book. Considering that the first 40% were neither used for world-building nor introducing the many characters properly, I’m surprised I even got this far. Because let me tell you: there are quite a few characters and it’s more than tough keeping them apart. Everyone has a first and last name, some also have nicknames, sometimes they’re referred to only by their title and/or House – and none of them have much personality. When all the necromancers and cavaliers from the Houses get together to compete to become Lyctors, I had no idea in any given converesation who was talking. I know there were a couple of teenagers, one super amazing swordfighter, and the others are just a blurry mix of names and titles. It also has no real impact on the plot who is who. Even the glossary at the beginning didn’t help and I didn’t want to flip back and forth on every single page to figure out which House Camilla belonged to or whether the teenagers were from the Third of Fourth House. The only character who is fleshed out a little bit is Dulcinea (don’t ask me which House) because Gideon spends some time with her and we actually get to see who she is for a bit. Then the deaths start.

This was the point where I hoped I would finally get on the hype train and understand all the rave reviews about crazy twists and lesbian necramancers and such. And I admit, what followed had its moments. There were certain tasks that Harrow and Gideon had to perform pursuing Harrow’s goal of becoming immortal and saving her House, and during those chapters, I really was at the edge of my seat. They also showed a bit more of what the necromancers in this world can even do. I was excited to finally learn more, Harrow grew on me because she is just really good at what she does, and Gideon surprised me. She had started out as this unfeeling, even ruthless character. Turns out, everything she does is pretty meek and nice. Sure, she curses a lot and she doesn’t flinch away from a fight but her behaviour generally is always kind and full of empathy. I liked her more for it but I was pretty confused why she was shown in such a different light in the first chapters.

But the plot – even though it had finally kicked off – doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it the story of a competetion in a labyrinthine place where people have to perform ridiculous and dangerous tasks? Is it a murder mystery? The thing is, as a genre-mashup it could have really worked, but every other chapter felt like the author didn’t know herself where she was going. The competition, the secret rooms, the challenges, were just completely dropped from the plot after a while. And while the murders are certainly mysterious, this is also not the kind of story where anyone goes investigating. People just sit around, duel a bit for no sensible reason, and wait for the next murder to happen.

My theories as to why this book didn’t work for me but did for so many others is that its focus is more on aesthetics than content. The way Gideon and Harrow are described, their face-paint for example, would make an excellent look for a movie. But looks alone aren’t enough to make me like a book. It turns out I like the idea of this book more than the book itself. Maybe that’s why I’m so very disappointed – because the book promised me something (lesbian necromancers in space) and not only didn’t deliver but delivered something completely different which also could have been cool but was just badly executed. The lesbian aspect was there only in Gideon leering after every other woman and I had kind of hoped for a little romance. No such luck. Space doesn’t really feature either. We’re told they hop on a spacecraft to get to this other planet and each House has its own planet apparently, but the plot takes place in very gothic settings that don’t work at all with the idea of an spacefaring people. If they can travel thorugh space, why would they live the way they do? In dirty ruinous buildings with no amenities? It just makes no sense and we are given no explanation. For anything. Ever!

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, only that it meanders from beginning to end. Between the thrilling bits I mentioned, you get more of the same boring nothingness as before. By the end, I was incredibly disappointed with the weak world-building. It is so thin that I wonder how the author managed to fill 400 pages with so much nothing. The ending does hold a couple of twists, but because Tamsyn Muir didn’t manage to make me care for any of the side characters (even the ones I could tell apart), I wasn’t really all that shocked. I just didn’t care. The very, very end does set up an interesting premise for the next book but if the writing and world-building don’t get better, I will stay far away from this.

For the handful of chapters and scenes that were truly exciting, and for Gideon’s snark, I’m giving this book 5 out of 10 points. But really, although I finished it only yesterday, I have already forgotten so much about it and I don’t even care. Every aspect of this was lacking: the world-building, the characterization, the plot (oh god, the plot), and the writing itself (if I had to read the word “myriad” one more time I would have screamed)… I don’t understand the hype. I really wish I did.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay

 

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

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

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Light and Easy Fantasy: Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns

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

SORCERY OF THORNS
by Margaret Rogerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

A Frogged Up Fairy Tale: Nancy Springer – Fair Peril

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

FAIR PERIL
by Nancy Springer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Wonderland Without the Wonder: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts

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

QUEEN OF HEARTS
by Colleen Oakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Not good