A Tropey Sci-Fi Romance: Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars

I picked this up because I’ve seen it on a few recommendations lists and I haven’t read that many 2020 YA books yet. Plus, the premise sounded too good to pass up. A girl risking her life for books and an alien who secretly loves human music? How could I resist?

THE SOUND OF STARS
by Alechia Dow

Published: Inkyard Press, 2020
eBook: 432 pages
audiobook: 12 hours 23 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. 

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.

Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.


Oh well, might as well get my first bad book of the year out of the way right now. The Sound of Stars started out quite well. Janelle – Ellie – lives in an Ilori-controlled building where she and her family and friends are locked up and live under tough restrictions. They must not show emotions, all art is banned, and they are kept alive merely to be vaccinated with a strange vaccine as soon as it’s finished. Ellie’s father got an early test version of the vaccine which has left him like a shell of his former self. Her mother, in the meantime, deals with this situation by drinking (which is of course also illegal). 17-year-old Ellie keeps a secret library and loans out books to her patrons. If she is caught, she’ll probably be executed immediately…

M0Rr1s is an Ilori labmade commander who is working on perfecting the mysterious vaccine in order to be used on all humans. But he also has a secret: He loves human music and secretly listens to it. His fellow Ilori would decidedly not approve. When he finds out about Ellie’s library, he confronts her. Not to get her executed but to make her help him get his hands on more music! Naturally, a romance evolves…

In the reviews I’ve read, M0Rr1s is often described as a lovable softie and that’s not wrong. To me, he often felt more like a robot than an alien, to be honest. He’s a fish out of water, unknowing in the ways of humans or how to interact with them. His innocent and curious nature made him easy to like, yes, but I had a very hard time picturing him with a human body.
Which leads to my next issue. The aliens aren’t really all that alien. It’s a widespread problem in science fiction that alien species are just humanoids with maybe an extra limb or different facial features. In this case, the Ilori have a computer panel on their face that lets them communicate via their alien internet. To be more specific, there are two types of Ilori. The true ones (who are vaguely human-shaped blobs of some kind?) and the labmade ones like Morris who look almost completely human, with skin and blood all the usual body parts.
I get that it’s easier to write a romance between two human-shaped characters than it would be between two properly different species. But I was so hoping for the more complicated version of this Romeo and Juliet tale. Where are the books where people and aliens fall in love and the alien doesn’t happen too look like a cute, attractive human?

But my biggest problem with the Ilori was that are against emotions. That’s not a new idea in science fiction at all but I found it weird that a species that clearly feels emotions is so opposed to them. Why? And how would that even work? Feelings are a catalyst for so many things. Fear, anger, love, jealousy, greed – those keep a story going and the Ilori feel them as much as humans do. Pretending not to doesn’t change the fact that emotions inform their actions. So I just don’t see the point other than creating some bogus conflict that lets Ilori execute anyone who actually shows how angry they are instead of putting on a blank face while being angry…

This book is often praised for its inclusivity and I did like some but not all of it. Janelle is a young, fat Black girl who she suffers from anxiety attacks. None of those things felt in any way forced or used for a specific effect. They are just part of who Ellie is. When things get dangerous, and they do that a lot, her anxiety flares up and she uses her method of counting down from five for dealing with it. I don’t know how realistic that method is, but it certainly felt believable and made Ellie into more of a badass in my eyes. After all, who would run a forbidden library when being found out could mean execution? For someone with anxiety to take that risk takes even more courage.
She’s also demi-ace and explains to Morris what that means. In her words (paraphrased), it takes a long time for her to get to know and trust someone and then, maybe, she’ll develop romantic feelings for them. Gender doesn’t matter, but time does. This becomes important later and it’s also the part I didn’t like because… well, it stands in stark contrast to what actually happens in the book.

The bulk of the novel is about Ellie and Morris on a road trip to California (I had so hoped for a road trip in space, but we can’t always get what we want (song title reference totally intended)). They meet both people and aliens on the way, get into dangerous situations, and of course fall in love with each other in no time at all.
That would have been fine, honestly, if Ellie didn’t specifically make fun of this very trope and if it didn’t contradict who she says she is as a person! She snobbishly looks down on book heroines who fall in love after only one day while DOING THE VERY SAME THING HERSELF! What am I supposed to think about that? Look, I know it’s a stupid trope but I don’t mind it if I’m watching or reading a romance. If it makes for a good story, the trope can be forgiven. But using a trope and making fun of it at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when it happens to a demi-ace girl who literally just explained how long it takes her to develop feelings!

As much as I liked Ellie at first, she does a complete 180 around the middle of the book and suddenly turns stupid. Morris and her get caught by some Ilori so Morris makes up a story on the spot about her being his prisoner – you know, to keep them both alive. While that is obviously a cover story, Ellie takes his suddenly changed demeanour at face value and starts instantly hating him. The girl who was so clever in the beginning and, by the way, reads books like others breathe air so who must have come across this trope before, can’t figure out that Morris isn’t really suddenly evil but just trying to save her ass from being executed or vaccinated? I just don’t understand that story decision. The plot would have worked just as well if Ellie had played along (and made her look much better), but I guess there had to be some “relationship conflict” that would lead to a fight, so the love birds could come back together dramatically.

Speaking of the relationship. This book is HEAVY on the romance and spends most of its middle part repeating the same pattern over and over. Morris and Ellie are on their road trip, they meet humans and/or Ilori, get in trouble, get out of trouble, sit in the car and talk, and the same thing happens again and again with slight variations. Not only does that get boring pretty quickly, but I also didn’t find their relationship development in the least interesting or believable. As I mentioned, Ellie falls in love way too quickly but there’s also never any real chemistry between the two. Their shared love for books and music only goes so far that she drops book titles and he talks about the artists he likes, and they agree on them being great.
Actually, the worst part of their shared love for the arts is how Ellie SUMS UP some of the best books out there for Morris. What self-respecting book lover would sum up Jane Eyre in their own world?! Don’t you want Morris to experience the pure beauty of that story for himself? And sure, you’re in a tight spot now but it’s all super hopeful and you’re saving the world so WHY SPOIL THE BOOK FOR HIM?

Oh and about those road trip stops. They always work by the same pattern but some of them are definitely more stupid then others. One time, Morris and Ellie are imprisoned (separately) and a human toddler comes along and sings “If you’re happy and you know it” with Morris. The mother, when she finds them, is naturally shocked. After all, her son is standing very close to one of the aliens who are suppressing her entire planet and are killing people left and right. However, because Morris and that kid had a nice little song together, the very same mother then decides to help Morris. I mean, just imagine for one second that Morris wasn’t a good guy but a different Ilori who actually means humans harm. What mother would be stupid enough to trust a complete stranger just because he sang a children’s song with her son?
But all the dangerous situations are like that. Ellie and Morris aren’t completely useless but they always end up being saved by a third party.

Oh and let’s not even start about that deus ex machina ending. It was sooooo ridiculous. The last third of the book is mostly “I love you more” “No, I love you more” “You are the highlight of my day” “I never want to be parted from you” but in between cheesy and way over the top declarations of undying love, the author must have remembered that novels also need a plot. In order to resolve hers, she throws in something that solves all the problems easily and at no cost to the protagonists. And for Ellie and Morris’ further adventures (please don’t write a sequel), Ellie’s parents stay conveniently out of the way and her best friend is suddenly not that important anymore. Because Morris is the center of her universe and that’s really all this book is about.

Audiobook specific thoughts:
It drove me absolutely up the walls that the male narrator (who is doing a brilliant job narrating as such) kept pronouncing M0Rr1s’ name as Em-zero-one-is. Like, I get that that’s his alien name but there’s a reason the author made it look like a name that humans can pronounce. The same goes for most other alien names and titles which mostly just switch out the letter “o” for a zero and the letter “i” for a one. That said, I did love Christian Barillas’ reading in general, and the way he did different voices and accents. He did a great job and I would absolutely listen to more audiobooks narrated by him.
Joy Sunday, who reads Janelle’s parts of the story, didn’t work so well for me. Her tone always sounded annoyed and kind of aloof. She made Janelle sound like she felt she was better than everyone else, although that doesn’t fit the way her character is described at all. I also wasn’t a fan of Sunday’s intonation or the way she pronounces the “g” at the end of every word ending in -ing. It sounded like she said “I was thinkink” or “what are you doink“. I don’t know if that’s something they teach you in narrator school but it annoyed me. A lot.

Look, it always pains me when I pick up a book by a Black debut author and then don’t like it. But this book, honest to god, reminds me of my own first (and very unreadable) book that I wrote when I was 12 years old. This read like a first draft and I cannot understand how it went through the entire editing process without anyone mentioning the flimsy world building, the lack of excitement, or the discrepancies between how the characters describe themselves and how they act.
Every author whose first book I dislike gets a second chance. But much like Kalynn Bayron last year, Alechia Dow will really have to blow me away with her next book. Otherwise I’ll just have to admit that her writing is not for me. I expect more from the books I read, especially in a time when YA has grown so much and can do way more than tell a cheesy plot-less romance.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

P.S.: This was on my list of five star predictions which goes to show that synopses and blurbs can only go so far… I’m a little bummed out right now and hope my next prediction turns out more accurate.

Evan Winter – The Rage of Dragons

Why is it that negative reviews are so much easier to write than positive ones? I guess I’ve spoiled my own review now but yes, you can expect some ranting, lots of head shaking and bafflement at how this got published and marketed the way it was. Even if it’s not all bad, it is, unfortunately, mostly bad. The hype monster has struck again…

THE RAGE OF DRAGONS
by Evan Winter

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 544 pages
Audiobook: 16 hours 15 minutes
Series: The Burning #1
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Queen Taifa stood at the bow o Targon, her beached warship, and looked out at the massacre on the sands.

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

This book has many, many problems but the beginning isn’t one of them. In fact, the prologue is quite interesting. A fleeing people is looking for a new home and decides to settle on a peninsula by driving the natives away. So far, so questionable but also quite intriguing. Many years later, Tau is a young man of these people called the Omehi. They live by a strict caste system and their entire lives revolve aruond war – mainly the war fought against the natives who would like their land back, please. Every man has to join the military but Tau has other plans. He dreams of a quiet life with Zuri, the girl he loves. That is, until his father is killed by a Noble. Thus starts Tau’s revenge quest, complete with a kill list like Arya Stark’s (although with fewer people on it).

So Tau joins the military and then comes 400 pages’ worth of training, fighting, battles, melees, duels, and all other types of sword fight you can think of. I’m not exaggerating. It’s all fights, all the time. There is very little plot in this chonker of a novel and also – to my great surprise – very few dragons. We see dragons in the prologue and then again quite late into the book. And when they do show up, the dragons are… kind of lame? I’m not a dragon fanatic and I honestly wouldn’t have minded their absence but if you title your book The Rage of Dragons, that raises certain expectations which were certainly not met.

Another large problem was the world building which, again, ties to the marketing of the book. It is sold as “Game of Thrones meets Gladiator in an African-inspired world”. I mean, what’s not to like about that? You’d expect political intrigue, factions conniving against each other, backstabbing, epic battles, and an African-inspired setting and culture, right? What you get is… none of that. The world could be any world, really, as the only African-inspired thing in this book is the characters’ names and titles. There is no culture, no descriptions of landscapes, no folklore – in short, nothing that sets this apart from any other military fantasy in a world with dragons. It also has none of the emotional impact the movie Gladiator has and absolutely no political intrigue because there’s not even a proper political system set up to play around with.

By far the worst thing was the long, boring stretch in the middle – and I’m using the word “middle” generously here, it’s really everything except for a couple of chapters at the beginning and the end – which consists entirely of fight scenes. Now these were written well enough but once you’ve read about seven duels or training battles, you kind of get the idea.
There is one moment that got me interested again, somewhere in the middle of this book. The magic system, which is also rudimentary at best, uses trips to the underworld as a source of power. The Gifted, the only females who appear in this book (a lot more on that later), can send their spirit, and the spirits of the men, into the underworld to either give them superstrenght, confuse them, or draw magic power from this place to summon and control dragons. In this underworld, hordes of demons attack you (or rather your spirit) and cause you immense pain. That was one of the few things that I found really cool, especially because Tau uses this knowledge in interesting ways.

Which leads me to the character of Tau and the way information is conveyed in this book. Tau is an idiot.

There was amazing potential at the beginning and so many cool themes that could have been explored. Tau’s relationship with his best friend Jabari who is his superior in caste comes into question right at the start when Jabari doesn’t stand up for Tau although a friend really should have. I had hoped we’d see this betrayal lead to something but the truth is, late in the book Jabari shows up again and although Tau is a bit grumpy, it’s like nothing ever happened between them. The same goes for the very basis  of this story – the war between the Omehi and the native Xideen. The Omehi are essentially stealing the natives’ land and then killing them for trying to get it back. I mean it doesn’t take a genius to see that our protagonist is not on the right side of this war. The Omehi had to flee their own home, so it’s understandable that they are desperate and just want a place to settle down. Wouldn’t it have been so amazing if this conflict had been discussed in any meaningful way? Yes, yes it would. Unfortunately, Evan Winter spent the entire novel telling us about Tao’s growing skills with a sword and just how much he wants the people dead who killed his father. Seriously, he does not let you forget!

Although both world building and magic system remain superficion throughout the entire story, there are little tidbits here and there that give us a slightly better picture of How Things Work. Some of them are presented as plot twists (those only really work when you’re emotionally invested, so they fell flat for me) and sadly, all of the information Tao learns over the course of this story is simply given to him by people much smarter and more interesting than him. Zuri, Tao’s Gifted girlfriend, is the one who shows up after ten battles to tell Tao something she has figured out. It is her who pieces everything together and it is her who questions how their society works. Her character would have made such a great protagonist, but sadly she exists solely to give Tao information and be his object of lust. The one sex scene was rather cringe-worthy.

The Omehi may be ruled by a queen but there is only one proper female character in this entire book – Zuri. The Queen gets to speak a little bit, one or two other women are mentioned but usually only as their function: the Gifted who fights with Tao’s team during battle training, that  other Gifted who dies on the battlefield, Tao’s team leader’s daughter… They don’t get a presonality, they certainly don’t get agency, and most of them don’t even get a name. I am baffled that in 2019, a fantasy novel like this can be published and receive mostly positive reviews. Is it me? I’m not usually one who counts female characters and looks at ratios so when notice a lack of women in a book, it means there’s really something wrong!

So most of the cast is male, which doesn’t keep them from being absolutely flat, just like Tao himself. His only driving force is revenge. Others at least show signs of seeing the bigger picture. They want betterment for their fellow people in the lower castes, yet even when they tell Tao that their Scale (their team) has a chance to show the world that Lowers are just as worthy as Nobles, Tao remains selfish and stubborn and doesn’t really care about the men who consider him a friend. There’s really not much to like about him.

The audiobook is narrated by Prentice Onayemi, who not only has the most soothing voice I can think of but also does his best to keep the listener engaged, despite the endless repetition of fight scene upon fight scene. I wasn’t a big fan of the way he read female characters but as mentioned above, there are only two who get to speak anyway, so that wasn’t a big problem. I didn’t enjoy this book but the audiobook definitely made me interested in more books read by Onayemi. It’s not his fault, after all, that he had so little to work with.

One last thing about the ending: What little plot there is doesn’t even get resolved by the end. Tao does have a moment of character growth which felt like it came out of nowhere because he previously refused to vehemently to behaving like a decent human being. But the actual plot – Tao’s revenge quest – is left mostly open. It came as no surpise to me that the larger story about the war also leads nowhere because this book is a series starter. And since I didn’t care about any of the characters except for Zuri, I wasn’t a fan of the ending either. That little last-minute conflict that was thrown in had no impact because we weren’t even properly introduced to the characters involved to care about who betrayed whom and why and what consequences this would have for the Omehi as a people. It felt quickly thrown together so the story could reach some sort of conclusion, not an organic ending at all.

Okay, I thought I was done but there’s more. Even with the terrible characters, the lack of women and plot, the shoddy world building and the messed-up ending, one thing could have saved this novel at least a little, and that is writing style. Winter definitely loves writing fight scenes and some of them were exciting enough. But other than that, he does a lot of telling instead of showing (mostly via Zuri because Tao doesn’t think for himself) and the prose in general is quite simple. I’d say a professional author (or his copy editor) should know the difference between “hanged” and “hung” and manage to describe more of the world than swords and demons, but maybe that’s just me.

Needless to say, I  won’t continue this series. I picked up this book because it sounded good and because I am trying to discover more new-to-me Black  writers. If you’re looking for that African-inspired GoT, look elsewhere. If you like reading about men bashing each other over the head with swords A LOT, then why not give this book a try? It certainly has found its audience and even though I’m not among them, I wish Evan Winter all the best in his writing career.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Really rather bad!

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

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

CINDERELLA IS DEAD
by Kalynn Bayron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Pretty bad

Buffy and Ballroom: Seanan McGuire – Discount Armageddon (DNF)

I’d been looking forward to reading the next book in McGuire’s October Daye series but after this, I think I’ve had my share of McGuire books for the year. Toby Daye can wait until 2021 because I have McGuire burnout!
The only (!) reason I picked up this book with the horrible cover, the generic title, and the boring premise is because the series is nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award and I want to give everything a chance. McGuire has surprised me in the past, even within the same series (Wayward Children, I’m looking at you) so I jumped over my shadow and read this gave this a fair shot. Things did not go well…

DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: InCryptid #1
My rating: DNF

Opening line: Verity danced circles around the living room, her amateurish pirouettes and unsteady leaps accompanied by cheers and exultations from the horde of Aeslin mice perched on the back of the couch.

Cryptid, noun: Any creature whose existence has not yet been proven by science. See also “Monster.”
Crytozoologist, noun: Any person who thinks hunting for cryptids is a good idea. See also “idiot.”

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night…
The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them.
Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?
It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed.
To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

I don’t usually write reviews about books I didn’t finish because… well, I can’t judge the whole book when I’ve only read a part of it. But I can judge the bits I’ve read. In this case, they were not good. Actually, they were pretty terrible. We follow Verity Price’s first person narration as she lives in New York where she works with cryptids – supernatural beings – and protects them, but also makes sure that the wilder ones among them don’t start eating people. Otherwise, it’s exile or, you know, death. I have read 34% of this book (so sayeth my Kobo) and I could not bear a single page more. Let me elaborate.

Verity Price is good at everything. Scratch that – she’s perfect at everything. Blonde, lithe-bodied, athletic, and of course super smart. She’s everything I hate in a protagonist. Through rigorous training – NOT superpowers or magic or something else more believable – she is basically a pro in a dozen martial arts, knows how to use all sorts of weapons, she free runs through New York City, and generally just excels at everything she touches. Oh yeah, she’s also really into ballroom dancing, a fact with which she keeps bombarding the reader in every paragraph. That’s all we learn during the first five chapters or so, so this book was off to a very bad start.
I want my heroines flawed and if they have to be really good at something, at least give them something else that they sucks at. Or if the protagonist has to be supernaturally amazing at everything, give me an explanation that is somewhat believable. Even a handwavey explanation would have helped. But, alas, we are supposed to believe that one person can be this great just because she applied herself. Way to go for creating unrealistic expectations of women.

I’m probably one of the few people in the world who doesn’t have a problem showering while standing on one leg and pointing the toes of my other leg toward the ceiling.

Oh yes, Verity, you are so super special. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Even without a super special and unrealistic ballroom career next to your other job of full-time monster protecting, there are people who can do the splits… I’m one of them. We’re not that special. Being flexible shouldn’t be anyone’s best (or only) quality.

So what’s this mess of a novel even about? The Price family used to work with an organization called the Covenant – essentially a monster-hunting secret society that has sworn to find and kill all the cryptids living on Earth. Except the Prices realized that not all monsters are bad, some just want to live their life in peace and don’t eat people on a regular basis. So why not coexist? They left the Covenant and have been in hiding ever since. That’s important for the plot, which takes a whopping 15% of the book to even show the slightest hint of starting (but, spoiler, doesn’t even really start until 31%).
Because when Verity encounters an agent of the Covenant, she just straight up tells him who she is, that her family is alive and well, and then she lets him go… Remember, this is the super smart protagonist who paints herself as Miss Perfect and sleeps cuddling her many, many guns. I cannot BEAR stupid protagonists, especially when that supidity stands in stark contrast to what we’ve been told about them. There was absolutely no reason for Verity to tell that guy who she was. She just did it. Her explanation afterwards? She lost her temper. Which wasn’t there on the page at all. In fact, because she’s such an uber-badass, she remained pretty calm during the entire encounter. And then she proceded to spill her family’s secret. Because reasons, I guess.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “Ever been shot in the head? Because I don’t think you’d enjoy it much. Most people don’t.”

What little dialogue there is, was super cringe-worthy. It’s like Seanan McGuire tried to write her own Buffy (without the superpowers that give Buffy all her strength etc.) but couldn’t reach anywhere near Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue and snappy one liners.

The actual plot – cryptids gong missing and a certain creature existint that people thought didn’t exist  – only begins at about 31%. That means you get over 100 pages of info dumping, repetitions about how wonderful Verity is and how she is great at everything, ESPECIALLY BALLROOM DANCING!
At that point, I decided I would give the book a limited number of pages to get me hooked and if it failed, I’d just DNF it. The more I read, the more annoyed I got. Because apart from the really dumb protagonist who we are repeatedly told is amazing, the pacing and plot are also really bad. If nothing of interest to the story happens during the first 100 pages, something went wrong during the editing stage. It’s great that we get to learn about all these cryptids and their quirks but I didn’t pick this up because I wanted a list of supernatural beings. I want plot and interesting characters. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
And when we’re not getting endless paragraphs about the make up habits of gorgons, we instead have to work several pages filled with the rules of ballroom competitions. And of course many mentions of Verity’s brilliance and awesomeness and general perfection.

Side note: I did a search on my Kobo and the word “dance” appears 145 times in this book. “Ballroom” is only used 30 times. But you get the picture. Verity doesn’t actually do much ballroom dancing, she just likes to let us know in every paragraph that she’s great at it.

Another thing that didn’t help was the humor. It may very well work for you – we all know humor is absolutely divisive and something one person hates can make another one giggle for hours. Generally, I do like Seanan McGuire’s humor, especially in interviews (her personal, real sense of humor works for me and I usually laugh at her jokes) but I was disappointed that, apparently, that’s the only type we ever get from her. The October Daye series – which I’ve started last year and enjoy a lot – doesn’t try as hard to be funny but Toby also likes being a bit snarky at times. Verity, however, lays it on pretty thick. Her “funny” one-liners left me frowning rather than smiling, her oh-so-clever descriptions of cryptid species all sound the same. I wish that these two urban fantasy series did more to stand apart when it comes to writing style as well as characters/plot.

The part where I finally decided I’d had enough was when Verity, out of nowhere, kisses a guy she had previously shown no interest in kissing. But of course, the only human male that we’ve met so far has to be the love interest because them’s the rules, I guess.

I know that this series, as well as McGuire’s other books and series, has quite a fan following and I wish I could have joined them. But to me, this felt like a carelessly thrown together mess without a point. If you’ve finished this book or even read more of this series, please let me know in the comments if things get better. At this moment I have no desire of ever touching another InCryptid novel, but who knows what the future might bring.

MY RATING: Did Not Finish (but I’d give the first third of this book 2/10)

 

The Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

It’s that time of the year again. On the one hand, it feels like 2020 has just started and like every year, I wonder where all that time went. On the other hand, I could swear 2020 has been going on for at least three years what with all the things that have happened. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, although it’s fairly under control here in Austria by now. We have about 450 cases at the moment, most restrictions have been lifted, and life is slowly returning to something resembling normal.

But I won’t lie. Current events had quite an impact on my reading. Not only because I suddenly hat a lot more time to read books but also because they made me seek out different types of books than I might have otherwise. I’m the kind of person who reads books about pandemics during an actual pandemic (if that’s not your jam, I totally understand. I don’t know why I’m like this.) and the Black Lives Matter protests definitely pushed some of my books by Black authors higher up on the TBR but they also made me read a lot more news, non-fiction, and pieces written by Black people about systemic racism and what’s going in the US right now.

How Much Have You Read

Total books read: 67
By Authors of Color:
17

I’ve been doing pretty well this year although I lost a lot of motivation for my reading challenges. When the world is falling apart, reaching a reading goal doesn’t seem all that important anymore and reading becomes more of a comfort, a self-care ritual. The current protests in support of #BlackLivesMatter also made me reexamine my reading habits and I changed my TBR priorities because of that. I have tons of books by Black authors anyway but now they’re going to get read a little sooner. My reading habits have changed quite a bit since I started this blog (from basically only reading white men and a handful of women to reading mostly women and a lot more Authors of Color) but I can do so much better! During the first half of the year, only about 25% of my books were by Authors of Color.  So for the rest of the year, I’m setting myself a little challenge not only to continue reading books by the Black authors I already know and love but to discover at least 10 new ones. That’s how favorites happen, after all.

BEST BOOKS YOU’VE READ SO FAR IN 2020

The City We Became is now a more timely book than ever. I read it before the protests that are currently happening all over the world and I honestly thought Jemisin painted her racist characters a little too racist. My opinion on that has changed. What I’ve seen in during the last weeks – videos, twitter exchanges, posts on social media sites – show that Jemisin knew exactly what she was writing and her characters are sadly realistic.
Deeplight totally swept me away. It is everything a YA novel should be and I’m still not over how phenomenal those characters were.
Doomsday Book turned me into a sobbing mess and I haven’t stopped thinking about that book since I read it. It is also very fitting for our current times as it’s about the plague as well as an epidemic so you can guess why it hit me so hard.
You can read more about my thoughts in my reviews (linked above).

BEST SEQUELS OF 2020 SO FAR

I’m finally reading the Earthsea Cycle this year! Three books in, The Tombs of Atuan is definitely my favorite. It’s a sneaky book that makes you care about the characters without letting you notice. And suddenly, you’re all emotions.
Sanderson continues to produce thrilling stories set in highly original worlds and this sequel to Skyward delivered just the kind of exciting YA adventure I wanted.

NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO

There are many, but these are the ones I’m looking forward to the most:

  • Martha Wells – Network Effect
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  • Ilze Hugo – The Down Days

MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2020

A lot! Here’s a few of them, although my actual wishlist is much longer.

  • Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
  • Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
  • Julia Ember – Ruinsong
  • Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War
  • Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Ikenga
  • Romina Garber – Lobizona
  • Lauren Beukes – Afterland
  • Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the Saints
  • Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s been a long time since I’ve been that bored with a book that sounded so good. The Guinevere Deception has flat characters, almost no plot, a lame climax and the constant feeling that this is just the opening chapter to the real story. I want the real story right now, thank you very much!
I picked up Blake Crouch because BookTube was hyping him like crazy. And while I can’t deny that Recursion was a page turner with a twist in every other chapter, it left no lasting impression. I felt very much like I was reading a science fiction thriller version of a Dan Brown book.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Descendant of the Crane just completely blew me away. I had no particular expectations so I was all the more happy to get a well thought-out story where young characters have to make tough decisions and are faced with difficult situations.
And of course I finally had to try The Witcher, which also exceeded all my expectations. I didn’t think I would get such a character driven story. I expected action and swordfighting and manly Witcher man being manly (which is totally okay) and instead I got something that resonated much more deeply with me. Fairy tales, characters in all shades of grey, and a protagonist who deals as much with ethics as he does with monsters.

FAVORITE NEW AUTHOR (DEBUT OR AUTHOR TO YOU)

She’s not new to me but finally picking up a second book by this author turned Frances Hardinge into a new favorite. Ted Chiang impressed me deeply with his story collection and I will definitely read more by him. Jessica Townsend has potential to become a favorite. I had so much fun with her book Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. And Rivers Solomon continues to impress me. I’ve only read shorter works by them so far but I’m already itching to pick up their novel An Unkindness of Ghosts.

Newest fictional crush 

Geralt of Rivia of course.
I’m kidding. I don’t really get fictional crushes anymore but I won’t deny that I imagined Henry Cavill while reading The Witcher. And he is one beautiful man!

Newest favorite character

BOOK THAT MADE YOU CRY

Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.
I mean… it’s a book that deals with time travel where a young historian visits the time of the plague. And there’s also an epidemic going on in the present. So it’s not like I didn’t expect some character deaths to happen. But Willis had me sobbing by the end in a way that I did not see coming.

A BOOK THAT MADE YOU HAPPY

Jessica Towsnend – Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

It helped that I read this while on holiday on a beach in Myanmar but I think even rainy, cloudy days could have been brightened by this lovely book. I’m keeping the rest of the series for a time when I need to just feel good.

MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR

Although this book has not technically arrived yet, it is beautiful to me both because first of all, I think it’s really pretty but also because I’ve been looking for a copy for years and finally found one that was in my price range. I did pay 50€ for it, so it was still pretty expensive. But now my Catherynne M. Valente collection is complete and I couldn’t be happier. The book is called Under in the Mere and it is illustrated by James and Jeremy Owen. I can’t wait to see it in person (be faster, post people!).

WHAT BOOKS DO YOU NEED TO READ BY THE END OF THE YEAR?

So many. Like I mentioned above, my regular reading challenges, including the Retellings Challenge, aren’t a priority anymore. Here’s a selection of what I hope to read this year not already covered in my most anticipated releases:

  • Bram Stoker – Dracula
  • N. K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky
  • Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts
  • Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower
  • Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection
  • Evan Winter – The Rage of Dragons
  • Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
  • Emma Newman – Planetfall

Nothing to offer: Kiersten White – The Guinevere Deception

I had read one of Kiersten White’s books last year for the Retellings Challenge and, while I thought it missed the point of being about Egyptian myths, it was a nice enough teen romance. So I thought why not see what White does with Arthurian legends. The setup – Guinevere is dead and our protagonist is an impostor taking over her place – sounded exciting enough. Sadly, pretty much everything about this book ended up being lame and left me feeling very “meh”.

THE GUINEVERE DECEPTION
by Kiersten White

Published: Delacorte Press, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Series: Camelot Rising #1
My rating: 2/10

Opening line: There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.
To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.
Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

We follow a young girl impersonating Guinevere on her way to marry King Arthur. She has been sent there by her father, Merlin, to protect the king from a mysterious threat. What that threat is – we don’t know and neither does Guinevere. But she’ll just have to go to Camelot, marry the king (who is in on the whole thing by the way), and protect him from evil magic. By doing magic herself. Which is outlawed… but the king knows about it and lets her do magic in secret. Because reasons. Don’t ask too many questions, this book doesn’t make sense. It’s 350 pages of Guinevere making magical knots, thinking how hard it is to be queen (even though she never really does any queen stuff). Seriously, that’s it.

There is never a feeling of an actual threat. And because Arthur knows of Guinevere’s secret, this isn’t a source of excitement either. Guinevere doesn’t really have to pretend that much, she only has to convince people of being the real Guinevere who don’t get that close to her. There’s never any tension, there’s never the feeling that she has to watch out or risk being caught… any potential for thrilling plot points was taken right out of the book at the very beginning. Who does that?? Why not make Arthur unaware and Guinevere actually having the difficult job of convincing her new husband that she is who she says he is? I’ll tell you why. Because then you can’t have her fall in love with three separate people in one book.

The only, and I mean only, thing that made this book bearable was the magic used by Guinevere. She makes knots. I know, doesn’t sound that great, does it? But it was the only original idea that kept me vaguely interested in finishing this book. Guinevere knots her hair for protection, uses metal knots to keep the castle safe, and so on. This kind of magic always takes a toll, so either she has to use her blood to make a spell work, or she loses her eyesight for a while, etc. I love magic that comes with a price and while nothing is explained about this magic system, at least it was something that made me continue reading because I was hoping to learn more about it. Spoiler: no such luck.

The other thing that is probably supposed to hook readers is Guinevere’s real identity. I suspect this question will remain open until the end of this series, so I will never find out (and I don’t much care, to be honest). But unlike the three (!) potential romances, at least the question of who she is and why Merlin sent her to Camelot was mildly interesting.
Guinevere is missing a lot of memories yet she never seems to question this. It’s like “oh hey, I barely remember how I grew up, who my mother was, how I spent my childhood, or much of anything else about myself, but let’s just go with it because I HAVE TO PROTECT ARTHUR FROM SOME UNKNOWN THREAT THAT I’VE ALSO NEVER QUESTIONED!” While this might have been explained pretty easily – just invent something, author, that’s what you do for a living! – it never is and that makes Guinevere not only seem boring but also pretty damn stupid. Why should I care about someone who is presented as an intelligent and somewhat powerful character yet behaves like an idiot all of the time?

As for the romances and the “plot twist” about Lancelot… It was all so obvious and so lame. I would try to use a better word to describe it but lame actually encapsulates it perfectly. So Guinevere is married to Arthur and mostly has friendly feelings toward him. However, there are many scenes in which her heart starts racing or she wants to touch his hair or whatever, so a potential romance is implied. Then of course there’s Mordred who flirts with Guinevere pretty often and she reacts like a giggling teenage girl, not like a young woman on a mission to protect her husband and king. Aaaaand let’s not forget Lancelot because we all know how the legend goes. Apart from being just too much, there was also no distinction between Guinevere’s feelings for these three people. I had to roll my eyes so hard, you guys…

After three quarters of the book passed without any plot to speak of, apparently someone (author, editor, whoever) realized that something should probably happen. So we get a last minute threat which was presented as some kind of twist. But if you retell King Arthur’s story and use what everyone knows about that story, by no stretch of the imagination can you call it a plot twist. The shocking reveals weren’t shocking, the moment just fell completely flat. Just as flat as the characters whose only distinguishing qualities are their looks.

I did kind of like how Tristan and Isolde was incorporated into the story, even though the author drops that side plot pretty quickly, making it feel like token name dropping. This entire book was just a string of nothings held together by cardboard characters behaving like morons. Anything that could have been interested was immediately shut down by the author, leaving an empty husk of a book. No matter how many Sir Whatshisnames you mention, if you don’t show who the characters are, if you don’t show the world they live in, if all you do is tell me how Guinevere’s breathing quickens when lover A/B/C is nearby, then you’ll lose my interest pretty fast. The only brownie points go to the magic system and that’s being generous.

All things considered, this book had nothing to offer. I don’t know why I should continue reading this series. Even if we do eventually get more information about Guinevere’s origin, why would I read another 300 pages of her sitting around, thinking half-finished thoughts about some threat and making knots? The way Kiersten White churns out books, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was so bad, in fact, that it will probably be my last foray into her work.

MY RATING: 2/10 – Bad!

P.S.: It probably didn’t help this book that I read The Mists of Avalon only a few months ago…

Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag!

This tag has been floating around the internet for about a week now and although nobody has tagged me (so far), I really want to join in the fun. I love the idea, I love the questions, and it’s always nice to check in on one’s own reading. After all, the year is already halfway over, so priorities should be made about what to read next.

❥ Reading Challenges 2019

Goodreads Reading Challenge: 45/60

I’m doing surprisingly well on my Goodreads challenge. I used to read 100 books a year with no problem, but the last two years, that seemed like an impossible task. But life changes, things quiet down, and I managed to find more reading time. I have no doubt I’m going to smash my Goodreads goal this year. Maybe I’ll even get close to 100 books. That would be amazing!

2019 Retellings Challenge: 9/10

Tracy’s Retellings Challenge still makes me as excited as I was at the beginning of the year. I have discovered wonderful new books, some I didn’t like so much, but the challenge definitely pushes me to finally pick up books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Or it makes me go out of my comfort zone and try something new. Either way, it has been very rewarding so far. My plan is to fill the bingo card until the end of the year. And if Tracy doesn’t create a follow-up challenge for next year, I’ll start the whole bingo card over again. Because it’s that much fun!

❥ Best Book You’ve Read so Far in 2019

This is so tough! I can’t go with just one, so here’s my favorite reads of the year so far with a link to my review in case you want to learn more about these amazeballs books.

❥ Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2019

Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising
I didn’t believe any author could possibly write a worthy and satisfying ending to such a great series but Leigh Bardugo did and I cried and it made me feel all the things and now she’s one of my favorite authors.

Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Warrior
I haven’t reviewed this book yet because there is so much to say about it that I don’t know where to start. It had all the magic and atmosphere from the first book but bigger, better, and more terrifying.

❥ New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

SO! MANY!!!

  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Ann Leckie – The Raven Tower
  • Chuck Wendig – Wanderers
  • Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  • Holly Black – The Wicked King
  • S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

❥ Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

  • Brandon Sanderson – Starsight
  • Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing
  • Maggie Stiefvater – Call Down the Hawk
  • T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones
  • Laura Ruby – Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  • Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth
  • Erin A. Craig – House of Salt and Sorrows
  • C. S. E. Cooney – Desdemona and the Deep

❥ Biggest disappointment

Without a doubt, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natahsa Ngan and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. I didn’t write a review for McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella because it made me so angry. There is very little plot (as usual) and there is only one interesting side character. The protagonist was the most self-pitying, hypocritical, whiny moron I have ever read about. The thing is, she would say I dislike her because she’s fat (but I really, really don’t care how big her thighs are) because that’s all she does. Suspect people of disliking her for being fat when everybody is actually very nice to her. But because she has a problem with her own size, she assumes everyone else does too. I just can’t root for a character who constantly puts herself in a victim role, imagining and inventing reasons why she’s supposedly treated unfairly when SHE OBVIOUSLY ISN’T AND NOBODY CARES IF SHE’S FAT. Whew. So yeah… I liked the beginning of that story but the protagonist made it unbearable. I’m surprised my eyes didn’t get stuck from how much I rolled them while reading this.

❥ Biggest surprise

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I had read two of Kowal’s fantasy books (Jane Austen with magic is the elevator pitch) and while they featured great ideas, they were both quite boring. That series lacked all excitement and the style is painfully technical. Like, the words are all in the correct place and I can see what the author is trying to do, but there’s no emotion there.
All the more surprise when Kowal’s alternate history/science fiction novel hooked me from the first page and didn’t let up until the end. Although this too is a quiet sort of book, especially for a sci fi novel, there was so much to love about it.

❥ Favourite new author (Debut or new to you)

  • S. A. Chakraborty
  • G. Willow Wilson
  • Sarah Gailey

Each of these women impressed me with only one of their novels. I had technically read G. Willow Wilson’s Miss Marvel before, but this was my first novel by her.
S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass was magical and lush and filled with complex politics.
G. Willow Wilson convinced me with her new novel The Bird King, which was full of atmosphere and mythology and very, very human characters.
And Sarah Gailey just threw the perfect debut novel out there with Magic for Liars. I loved the characters, I was completely in for the murder mystery, and I can’t wait to read more by her.

❥ Newest fictional crush

I’m a little too old for fictional crushes but if you made me pick one that I think my younger self would have loved, I’d go with Sean Kendrick from The Scorpio Races.

❥ Newest favourite character

Hm… I already mentioned Sean Kendrick, so I’ll go with a different one here. Although the book itself wasn’t perfect, A Curse so Dark and Lonely featured one of the best, proactive heroines I’ve encountered in YA in a long time. Harper Lacy may have cerebral palsy, but she doesn’t let that hold her back from saving kingdoms, breaking curses, or generally taking matters into her own hands. She doesn’t wait to be saved, she gets up and saves herself!

❥ Book that made you cry

The ending of the Grisha Trilogy was just too well done not to cry a little. But Stiefvater really wrecked me with The Scorpio Races. I was close to tears for the entire last third of the book. But you know when I really did start crying? On the very last page, reading that very last line! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an ending this perfect.

❥ Book that made you happy

It’s a little concerning how long I had to think about this. But while I’ve read a lot of depressing, dark, sad books this year, there were some that ended up making me glow with joy.

  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • L. M. Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables

Circe may have started out depressing, what with the titular Circe being unloved and unwanted most of the time. But as she grows as a character and as her world changes and new people enter into it, her story becomes more joyful. By the end, I caught myself smiling more and more often.
I also finally read Anne of Green Gables after watching the first episode of its adaptation on Netflix. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if Anne’s optimistic outlook and pure joy for life doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

❥ Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

I have bought some seriously pretty books this year!

  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

❥ Books you need to read by the end of the year

Well, there’s a lot of those. But because endless lists are no fun for anyone, I’m going to narrow it down to my top 15 books that I absolutely need to read before the year is over.

  • Joanne M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Call
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Garth Nix – Frogkisser
  • Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant

I’m not going to tag anyone specifically because I know many, many people have done it already. If you want to join in and do this tag, consider yourselves tagged and maybe leave me a link to your post. I love reading other people’s freak out tag answers and discovering even more books I have to read. 🙂

A hot mess: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.

GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan

Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. 

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.

Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.

As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to –  you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.

Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…

Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.

This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!

I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than  Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.

Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.

The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing.  I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.

That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.

I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.

MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)

Overhyped and disappointing: Stephanie Garber – Caraval

See, the thing about books that are as overhyped as this one is that the disappointment when it’s not a great book (or not even a good one) is felt all the more keenly. This may have been a neat idea in the author’s head, but the execution is a disaster. This is a book just like its protagonist: pretty on the outside, absolutely vapid and without personality on the inside.

caravalCARAVAL
by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
Hardback: 402 pages
Series: Caraval #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: It took seven years to get the letter right.
Continue reading

Charlie N. Holmberg – The Master Magician

I’ve been putting this off for a while… at first I didn’t know what to write, then I wasn’t sure if I should waste a post about this at all. Should I tell you about all the ways this book is a fail? Or focus on just one or two? Should I just leave it altogether? But the completionist in me refused to stop reading after book 2, and after pushing through the entire trilogy, I feel I can do you, dear readers, a service by warning you. If you want brainless entertainment, the first book is okay. But do yourselves a favor and just stop after that.

master magicianTHE MASTER MAGICIAN
by Charlie N. Holmberg

Published by: 47North, 2015
Ebook: 226 pages
Series: The Paper Magician #3
My rating: 2/10

First sentence: Ceony, wearing her red apprentice’s apron over a ruffled blouse and plain brown skirt, stood on her tiptoes on a three-legged stool and stuck a square of white paper against the east wall of the Holloways’ living room, right where the wall met the ceiling.

Throughout her studies, Ceony Twill has harbored a secret, one she’s kept from even her mentor, Emery Thane. She’s discovered how to practice forms of magic other than her own — an ability long thought impossible.
While all seems set for Ceony to complete her apprenticeship and pass her upcoming final magician’s exam, life quickly becomes complicated. To avoid favoritism, Emery sends her to another paper magician for testing, a Folder who despises Emery and cares even less for his apprentice. To make matters worse, a murderous criminal from Ceony’s past escapes imprisonment. Now she must track the power-hungry convict across England before he can take his revenge. With her life and loved ones hanging in the balance, Ceony must face a criminal who wields the one magic that she does not, and it may prove more powerful than all her skills combined.

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Oh boy. Let’s just get all the terrible problems out of the way before my head explodes. The lack of research for the historical period from the first two books continues here. Everything feels so very modern, so very American, that I kept wondering why the author wanted to set this in London and in the past. She clearly didn’t care enough to have anyone proof read the book to find all the glaring anachronisms. That is the least of this book’s problems, though.

Ceony, who was plucky and fun an in the first book, albeit a walking, talking stereotype, has now gone full-on idiot. Not only does she do forbidden and dangerous things – after TWO books of exactly this behaviour almost getting her killed and actually getting her friend killed – seriously, does this woman never learn? She may talk like a modern day woman but her ideas of gender roles are straight out of the stone ages. Women cook, men do… everything else I guess? Women, of course, are also supposed to be beautiful, but only so long as Ceony approves of their type. She shows distate on several occasions when other women act stereotypically feminine (wearing frilly dresses, giggling, being girly), but when she herself turns all 50ies wife or giggles, it’s okay. You know why? Because she is SPECIAL!

The story here is not just lame, it’s even lame in-universe. The villain from the second book – remember, the only Indian person in a cast so very, very white – has escaped and is now the villain of book number three. He is a villain because… the plot calls for something to fight, apparently. He has no agency, no personality, no motives – all he has is dark skin, an accent, and a desire to do evil for evil’s sake. I can let a lot of things slide but when an author so clearly doesn’t take the time to question what she writes, when research is deemed unnecessary, the book that comes out of this reads as if a five-year-old wrote it. And I’d hazard a guess that my imaginary five-year-old could have at least come up with a more interesting (and less offensive) villain. Hell, why not put a big monster in there for Ceony to fight?

Even if I could ignore all of that (which I couldn’t), the author decided to overhaul her entire magic system. Sure, Ceony found out in the previous book what NOBODY HAS FOUND OUT BEFORE: that magicians can break their bond to their chosen material and switch between materials as they wish. All they need to do is say some words… if this weren’t stupid enough already, suddenly Ceony can not only bond to all man-made materials – which was the whole premise of this trilogy – but to fire. I don’t know about you, but my interpretation of fire is not exactly that it’s a man-made material. Yeah, we can strike a match and “make fire” but it’s not the same as paper, plastic, or steel. This was a major moment of fail that breaks the entire internal logic (haha!) of the series.

If, at this point, I had cared about any of the characters, I would probably still have groaned and rolled my eyes at the blatantly obvious ending. Of course it ends with a marriage proposal. Because that’s the one thing Ceony needs, right? For her master magician to finally make a married woman out of her, so she can cook his meals officially, without society frowning upon it. Her discovery of new magic, her job application to the crime department, those are just background. What she really needs is other people’s approval for her need to feed her man.

So, the bad stuff is out of the way. That leaves me with – nothing. Sorry. Everything in this book is a mess. There is no plot, there are no stakes, there is nothing I cared about, and nobody I wasn’t annoyed with. Be it the forcefully inserted story about Ceony’s jealous younger sister, the pretend difficulty of her magician test (come ON, it’s all sooooo obvious, a baby could solve it!) or the hunt for the villain. There are the soppiest of soppy moments, there is the lame and unoriginal love story, there is no substance whatsoever. My God, am I glad that this is now over.

MY RATING: 2/10 – So very, very bad!

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Second opinions