Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

divider1

Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours3

Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

divider1

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

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

three-dark-crownsTHREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake

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

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

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

divider1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-dark-crowns-uk-covers

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

divider1

Second opinions:

 

Save

Save

Angela Slatter – Vigil

I know, I know. I said I’d read anything the wonderful Angela Slatter writes and she warned me herself on Twitter that this was urban fantasy and thus nothing like her fairytale-esque story collections. But a great writer is a great writer and can dabble in many genres. Despite the underlying mythology, I found this to be a bit too much like my generic idea of an Urban Fantasy. It did have original ideas and was a fun read. I’ll just never love Urban Fantasy with all its tropes and clichés as much as I do other subgenres.

vigil1VIGIL
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Verity Fassbinder #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The ribbon was judging me, I knew it.

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

divider1

I don’t read much urban fantasy and I’m probably doing the subgenre very wrong with my prejudices but every time I seem to pick up an UF book, all the tropes are there, the plot feels predictable, and I feel all the more justified in my reasons for avoiding books of that kind. I’m just not into your typical hot and sexy, yet snarky narrator girl who can kick ass despite weighing 45 kg. Please no more mysterious, dark handsome men – be they vampires or werewolves or something else entirely. I’m so tired of pecking orders in packs and covens or even the special supernatural FBI. It’s been done and done to bits, in so many books, TV shows, and movies.

Enter Angela Slatter, a woman who loves tropes. Well, she loves to play with and subvert them, so I knew I wouldn’t mind an Urban Fantasy written by her. She does fall victim to a cliché or two, but there are fresh ideas in here, definitely. It starts with Verity Fassbinder, who is an intriguing protagonist. First of all, I don’t know how old she is. Did I miss it in the book, was it never mentioned, was I just inattentive? Her tone of voice could put her anywhere from her early twenties to her fourties and that’s partly what made me like her but also annoying at times. A character that shifts so easily between “quirky badass young woman” to “seasoned and somewhat cynical adult” is difficult to identify with. It doesn’t matter much for the plot but I did notice and it kept taking me out of the reading flow.

My favorite part about Vigil was the world building and the cases Verity pursues. Those go hand in hand as it is those cases that show us more of the fascinating world. Angela Slatter has turned Brisneyland into a place with actual magic, both light and dark, but mostly dark and scary. Let me say first that the whole introduction of Verity’s past (or rather her father’s past) felt unnecessary and info-dumpy, especially right there at the beginning where we don’t even know who is who yet and what kind of world we are in. I would also like to say right now that if Verity’s (deceased) father surprisingly shows up alive in the sequel, I will throw something against a wall. It feels like that kind of setup and I really hope I’m wrong here.

But back to Verity Fassbinder’s Brisbane. Well, we are in a world with Normals (that’s us, folks) and Weyrd (all the weird shit) and some people who are in-between (Verity). The Weyrd hide from us with glamours and charms and so on and we all live happily side by side. Except when shit goes down, people go missing, or turn up dead – then Verity investigates. In Vigil she has both her hands full. Sirens – who are not what you think, by the way and I loved that twist to pieces – are dying and nobody knows what’s killing them. Turns out it’s not so easy to kill a mythological creature who is practically immortal. In addition, children are disappearing, and a terrifying whirlwind of evil is randomly killing people. Shit is hitting the proverbial fan and Verity has no clue where to start looking for answers. Her investigations are a lot of fun to follow, especially because she has a great relationship with her private taxi driver.

While Verity’s voice and character aren’t completely tropey, they did remind me a lot about the snarky, kickass, superstrong characters we see everywhere. Just make Buffy a bit older, fly her over to Australia, and there you go – it’s a Verity. However, she does have an interesting past, as her father was quite a… let’s say infamous figure in Weyrd circles. She also has a past with her hot vampire boss of course, which I found completely useless. It does absolutely nothing for the plot, and not much for anyone’s character development. They are not awkward with each other, their relationship doesn’t feel all heavy because of their past, it’s just a gimmick to give Bela more personality than he has as just “the boss”. On the bright side, the romance that comes Verity’s way throughout the book, is actually lovely. It’s not front and center, it happens naturally, there’s no big drama and I love both characters involved all the more for that.

vigil

I also loved little nods like Bela’s name. Zvezdomir Tepes – Tepes as in Vlad the Impaler, I’m guessing – and Bela as a nickname after Bela Lugosi. It’s thinking around two small corners like that to create a name that fits the character perfectly, that makes me really happy. The Sirens as well all have appropriate (and lovely) names, as do the Norns. I loved the inclusion of them precisely because they are not werewolves or the usual Urban Fantasy creature. Slatter knows the treasure chest of mythology and folklore is deep and I love her for looking beyond wolves and fanged bloodsuckers. It’s not only Greek mythology you’ll find here, however, and I suspect (and hope) that the next books will show us even more creatures from all around the world.

Plot-wise, this was an engaging read. It moves along quickly, there is barely a moment to catch your breath. I like that Verity’s life feels like a lived-in place, there are people who know her or work with her and this all makes Brisbane feel much more real, more alive.

All things considered, reading this was fun, but there was nothing overwhelming or groundbreaking in it for me. It’s urban fantasy and it does exactly what you expect. Sure, there are cooler creatures that replace werewolves and vampires, the romance is a wonderful background-plot, and Verity is just a good person so it’s nice to follow her around trying to save everyone. The twists at the end were well-executed, but because the three cases get jumbled up, I felt like there was no way for me to guess any of the solution. I always prefer when the clues are there and just so well hidden that I miss them, but technically could have guessed right. So yeah, I’ll read the next book in the series, but I much prefer Angela Slatter when she’s not trying to fit in a subgenre mold but just does her own thing.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

divider1

Second opinions:

 

Save

Save

Ian Doescher – William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope

I resisted this a long time, suspecting it may be just as cheap a rip-off as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was (never managed to finish that book…), but a friend convinced me that this is not merely a script of the movies made to rhyme but actually a bit more clever than that. While I don’t think this is a masterpiece of literature, it was truly fun to read and it’s a beautiful physical book to have on my shelf.

verily-a-new-hope

William Shakespeare’s STAR WARS:
VERILY, A NEW HOPE
by Ian Doescher

Published by:
Hardback: 174 pages
Series: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars #4
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: It is a period of civil war.

MAY THE VERSE BE WITH YOU!
Return once more to a galaxy far, far away with this sublime retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. ‘Tis a tale told by fretful Droids, full of faithful Wookiees and fearsome Stormtroopers, signifying… pretty much everything.
Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify Rebels and Imperials alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

divider1

I am really glad I bought this book. It came in a lovely slipcase including the other two books in the trilogy (they may be numbered 4 through 6 but who’s the publisher kidding?) and it looks fantastic on my shelf. Apart from the obvious good looks of this book, the content offered some interesting surprises as well.

The story is the one we all know and love. Princess Leia hiding the secret Death Star plans in R2-D2, who is trying to get them to Obi-Wan. Luke Skywalker picks up R2 and C-3PO and gets dragged into this big adventure involving a dark-clad man with a breathing problem, furry co-pilots and a damn sexy Han Solo. There is nothing new here, story wise, so don’t expect any extra scenes or background goodies – although there was a quite funny comment about who shot first (Han did! It’s always been Han!).

So what makes this book worthy of your time is mostly the fun of discovering famous quotes Shakespeare-ified. Whether it’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or Han’s nicknames for Leia, seeing them in wrapped in iambic pentameter actually made me giggle. However, it was Luke that got to me in this book more than he ever did in the movies. I was genuinely surprised by how well his yearning for adventure came through. In the movie, I always thought of Luke as somewhat of a brat, you know, a whiny teenager who wants to leave home to lead his own life, never mind family responsibilities. But in Doescher’s version, Luke’s speeches actually touched me and conveyed in how much pain he is because he’s stuck on Tatooine (which, okay, I get it, it’s a pretty shitty planet).

There are also a few little gimmicks that made the book worthwhile. R2 may still speak droid (“bleep” and so on) but there are a few asides to us, the audience, in English. It’s nothing you didn’t already expect R2 to think but it’s nice to have the little guy actually get to talk in our language for once and voice his annoyance at his companion droid. Chewie is still Chewie and all we get from him is his famous growing/howling noise.

Even if this book weren’t as entertaining as it ended up being, I would have been happy about it just for the illustrations. Like the cover design, they show the characters in immediately recognisable shape, except wearing old-timey garb. Vader especially cracked me up, dressed in his suit (complete with breathing apparatus) plus super fabulous fur coat and puffy sleeves. Seriously, just look at this:

There are many more fantastic illustrations, some of which made me laugh (the Cantina band), others which were more of a nod to Shakespeare than Star Wars (Luke holding a Stormtrooper helmet much like Hamlet’s Yorick skull), and others still that I’m not spoiling for you. Let’s just say, Jabba makes an appearance in all his Shakespearean glory.

The one thing – and this was to be expected – that simply can’t be done properly in this medium, is the space battles. Whenever description is needed, the choir enters to set the stage for us. In the case of the final battle at the Death Star, the author even acknowledges that it’s impossible to reproduce this scene on a stage (or in a written play), so we just have to put a bit more effort into our readerly imagination. That’s totally okay and there was no way it could have been done differently, but of course it also made that last battle feel much less epic. When all you have to go on is the rebel’s comm messages, some randomly shouting “I’m hit” and others coming to their companions’ rescue, that’s just not very exciting if you don’t see the fight. But it was the only real shortcoming of this version of Star Wars, for which I will gladly forgive the author.

I’m sure a lot of work went into these books and they’re not just the money-grabbing merchandise that they first appear to be. There’s not much to discover here that’s new but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of this. I quite liked it.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

divider1

Okay, I can’t resist. Have another picture:

verily-a-new-hope-illustrations

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Leigh Bardugo – Shadow and Bone

I have resisted for a long time, guys. But you see, the covers and reviews for Leigh Bardugo’s new trilogy – the one with the crow and city silhouette on the cover, are so amazing that I thought I’d try them. Then I heard that they are set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy and, being obsessed with order when it comes to books (if not anything else in life), I had to start at the very beginning. And here I am, neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed. As Bianca said in 10 Things I hate about you: “Can you be just whelmed?”

shadow and bone.jpgSHADOW AND BONE
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: The Grisha #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and the youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches.

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

divider1

The reason I stayed away from this trilogy so long, despite the heavy praise from all over the internet, the (amazing!) fanart, and the thrill of reading a fantasy set in an alternate Russia, well… the reason is I expected it to be another idiotic romance with a love triangle, an oh-so-special and unique girl protagonist, and very little substance. And the thing is, this is a little bit of what I got. But not all.

Alina Starkov and her best friend Mal grow up in an orphanage – their childhood is wrapped up in a short prologue but that prologue was so well written that the bond between these two was immediately believable. The atmosphere, the Fantasy-Russia, the world are all set up just enough to get us by in that prologue. So I threw all my prejudices away and was positively surprised.

Cut to years later, when both Alina and Mal are in the army, Mal as a tracker, Alina as a cartographer. The second brownie point was collected by giving both characters interesting jobs and not making Alina a super fighter, as so many YA romances are trying to do. I don’t want a heroine who can (already) do everything, who is beautiful and skinny, but also secretly strong and a ninja. And probably a witch as well. No, Alina actually doesn’t fit in very well, unlike Mal. He is a natural and constantly surrounded by friends and girls swooning over him. Alina is on the sidelines. Until the Darkling arrives.

The Darkling was both an intriguing and ridiculous figure. First of all, he doesn’t seem to have a name as everyone calls him by his title – the Darkling. With a name/title like that, it doesn’t take much imagination to see him as a potential bad guy. He is the most powerful of the Grisha, the country’s magical army. And, as it turns out, Alina is a Grisha too. The middle part of the book is your average, and sadly unoriginal, girl learning her new powers and getting a makeover scene. Seriously, you’ve all seen it before. Alina comes to the palace, is suddenly treated like the special snowflake she turned out to be, gets pretty dresses and make-up, and flirts heavily with the darkly brooding, mysterious and gorgeous dude that everybody wants. I was both groaning at the familiarity of it all and at the same time delighted because the writing was actually good. So, Leigh Bardugo may have written the exact same story that we know from endless other YA books, but she wrote it well.

Alina herself starts as a great character but then she turns into a passive girl who’s just there to be pretty and special. She rarely does things because she wants to but is mostly passed around and told what to do. This does get better at the end but it doesn’t excuse her blindly trusting a man called Darkling or the first person who is kind of nice to her. My take on this is that it was meant to be her story arc – to turn from the passive, naive, lonely girl into a stronger woman with agency. I hope I’m not wrong.

My favorite parts suffered in favor of the sort-of love triangle. It is not as infuriating as most love triangle and it’s resolved pretty quickly – a refreshing change. But what really interested me was the world building, the way magic is used, the legends and myths of this place. The book has a great map at the beginning, showing the Fold, a sort of ocean rift in the country, full of terrible creatures. I want to know EVERYTHING about this! We do get glimpses and hints here and there and my guess is that Bardugo is saving the rest for the later books, so I’ll forgive her for telling me so little about it. But seriously, guys, check out this map. I totally love it.

shadow and bone map

The other interesting aspects are the magic, as I said, and social norms. Most things I just kept assuming, but I’d really like to know officially how this world works, more about the war that left Alina and Mal orphaned, more about the world at large. If it hadn’t been for training sessions and beauty regimens, there would have been time for that, but I get the feeling more and more that YA authors write books to become movies. Visually, there is a lot going on here and I think – with all the beautiful characters and the stunning imagery – this would actually make a good movie.

Plot-wise, the make-over bit is followed by an obvious plot twist (seriously, how could anyone not see this coming), and then things get better again. Alina and Mal’s friendship, although the two are separated for large parts of the novel, was definitely a strong point of the book. The romance wasn’t all that romantic, but if I can choose between embarassingly flowery love scenes (looking at you, Sarah J. Maas) or this understated love-from-friendship, I’ll take the latter any day.

The ending was both satisfying and frustrating – can you see a pattern here, do you understand why this book left me “whelmed”? I really liked the way the story ended, except it didn’t really end. I sort trilogies into two rough categories. The ones where each book tells its own story, but the trilogy tells a larger story. And the ones where a trilogy is just one story, chopped up into three physical books. The Grisha trilogy seems to be one large story where each novel is just a chapter. I am okay with this because not only has the trilogy been completed, Shadow and Bone also ends in a way that makes me want to pick up the next instalment. There’s no evil cliffhanger but things are far from resolved. So, fine, I’ll go along with it and hope the next book leaves out the high school-like court drama.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good-ish

divider1

Second opinions:

Save

Brandon Sanderson – Shadows of Self

Aaaaand Mistborn continues to be great, although there is a clear departure from the light-hearted The Alloy of Law to this new story arc. While Alloy was just a bit of fun and can technically be read without any prior knowledge of the other Mistborn books, Shadows of Self is set deeply in the world that we first came to know through Vin’s eyes. The tone also shifts and is more serious again as Sanderson delivers one of his most heartbreaking twists yet.

shadows of selfSHADOWS OF SELF
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2015
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: Mistborn #5
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Waxillium Ladrian, lawman for hire, swung off his horse and turned to face the saloon.

With The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson surprised readers with a New York Times bestselling spinoff of his Mistborn books, set after the action of the trilogy, in a period corresponding to late 19th-century America.
The trilogy’s heroes are now figures of myth and legend, even objects of religious veneration. They are succeeded by wonderful new characters, chief among them Waxillium Ladrian, known as Wax, hereditary Lord of House Ladrian but also, until recently, a lawman in the ungoverned frontier region known as the Roughs. There he worked with his eccentric but effective buddy, Wayne. They are “twinborn,” meaning they are able to use both Allomantic and Feruchemical magic.
Shadows of Self shows Mistborn’s society evolving as technology and magic mix, the economy grows, democracy contends with corruption, and religion becomes a growing cultural force, with four faiths competing for converts.
This bustling, optimistic, but still shaky society now faces its first instance of terrorism, crimes intended to stir up labor strife and religious conflict. Wax and Wayne, assisted by the lovely, brilliant Marasi, must unravel the conspiracy before civil strife stops Scadrial’s progress in its tracks.
Shadows of Self will give fans of The Alloy of Law everything they’ve been hoping for and, this being a Brandon Sanderson book, more, much more.

divider1

Wax and Wayne are irrisistible (especially Wayne). And they’ve got another case on their hands, but this time, they don’t work nearly as alone as they did last time. Marasi has become a constable and helps them wherever she can, although her personal relationship with Wax seems strained, compared to their easy banter from the first book. Which is only natural, considering that Wax is coming more and more to terms with marrying Steris, Marasi’s cousin.

One surprise of this new series was that characters turn out not to be as one-dimensional as they seem at first. Steris in particular turned out to be more than what she likes to show in public. But in Shadows of Self, Wayne also gets to show a side of him that doesn’t fit with his cocky, fun, light-hearted side. It made him an even better character to know that – like anyone else – he has darkness in his past and he can’t just shake it off.

But the most tortured soul in Shadows of Self is definitely Wax. His past confronts him in several ways, but especially the loss of his wife in the Roughs haunts him with every move he makes. It was also Wax who was hit hardest by the ending. I cried big tears for him, that’s all I’m saying. And I am very curious to see how these new developments impact his character development in the rest of the series.

Plot-wise, this was a bit of a mess. Sanderson tries to juggle many, many plot-strings at once. There is the one started in The Alloy of Law with Wax’s uncle conspiring for his own ends, there are the terrorist attacks that Wax, Wayne, and Marasi are trying to figure out, the kandra make a new appearance and wrap up a whole of lot of history since last we saw them. There are labor strikes and unrests, there are politics and police procedures, several religions trying to gain the upper hand… you see what I mean when I say it was a bit too much for one book, especially one comparatively short for Sanderson. I commend him for making the best of every scene, getting out the most of each line, having his text do world-building as well as advancing the plot at the same time. But as a reader, it still felt a bit overwhelming, not knowing which aspect to concentrate on.

I think that piece of legwork was simply needed to give the next book in the series room to breathe. A lot of things have been established here that can be used later without re-explaining them. I appreciated that – despite the abundance of themes – there was still time for character growth and development. The introduction of MeLaan promises a lot of fun for future books, and meeting old (very old!) friends again gave me some readerly joy, even if it was bittersweet.

Although things are resolved at the end of Shadows of Self, this was one of the most devastating endings Sanderson has ever written (at least of the ones I’ve read). It’s a perfect balance between telling a story with a satisfying ending but leaving enough questions open for the next book. He’s always been good at that but this time, it’s the emotional plot strings that are left frayed and I worry for Wax as a person more than for the larger world and its fate. Well… I guess there’s no way around it – I’ll just have to pick up the next book and find out what else lies in store.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

divider1

If you haven’t read the the Mistborn Series at all, here are my thoughts on the other books.

Save

Save

Matt Wallace – Pride’s Spell

Trust Sin du Jour to get me out of a reading slump. What with so many great and long-expected books coming out recently (the last Fairyland book, the last Raven Cycle book, tons of fantastic new stuff…) I had a bit of an overload or books and didn’t feel in the mood for anything. Except Matt Wallace’s novella, the third in his series about a catering service for the supernatural.

prides spell

PRIDE’S SPELL
by Matt Wallace

Published by: Tor.com, 21st June 2016
Ebook: 240 pages
Series: Sin du Jour #3
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The lights burn brighter than any layperson can imagine, but Bronko is used to sweating in kitchens far hotter than this studio.

The team at Sin du Jour—New York’s exclusive caterers-to-the-damned—find themselves up against their toughest challenge, yet when they’re lured out west to prepare a feast in the most forbidding place in America: Hollywood, where false gods rule supreme.
Meanwhile, back at home, Ritter is attacked at home by the strangest hit-squad the world has ever seen, and the team must pull out all the stops if they’re to prevent themselves from being offered up as the main course in a feast they normally provide
Starring: The Prince of Lies, Lena Tarr, Darren Vargas. With Byron Luck. Introducing: the Easter Bunny.

divider1

We all know something sinister is going on in Hollywood, right? I mean, why do the most vapid movies get three sequels when the best TV shows are cancelled after only one season (Firefly, I will never forget you!)? Matt Wallace knows what’s up in his latest Sin du Jour story which takes the crew to Los Angeles for a big catering event with surprisingly ordinary food. Well… ordinary by Hollywood standards, I suppose. There’s a vegan option for everything, the food has to correspond with all the famous people’s particular diets and whatnot, but there are no supernatural ingredients this time, so you’d think Ritter and his people would catch a break.

Except Ritter and the others who remained back home are all visited by, let’s call them interesting guests. It won’t spoil the fun when I tell you that the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause are not like you expect them to be. They offer a few very action-packed, hilarious chapters in which Ritter and Co. show just how awesome they are in the face of danger – even if that danger is so crazy you don’t know whether to laugh or grab a sword first. Hollywood, apart from all the insanity you’d expect anyway, also has some surprises in store for our kitchen heroes.

It’s a movie poster.
The title is Authority over Unclean Spirits and the one-sheet is dominated by an image of a very pretty actor the makeup department has tried very hard to make unpretty (which seemes ludicrous to Lena, among others, considering how many talented ugly people there already are in the world) kneeling in the mud in front of barbed wire, looking to the sky.

So while Bronko, Lena, and a handful of others are trying to survive Hollywood Hell (literally) and Ritter and his team fight off all sorts of creatures gone mad, there is actually quite a bit of character development going on. Lena is still a skeptic, despite having witnessed angels, goblins and horny lizard monsters. Her relationship with Darren has been strained ever since Lena started sort-of-dating-but-mostly-just-sleeping-with the sous chef Dorsky. He knows this relationship isn’t good, Lena knows it’s not good, we readers know it’s not good, at least not in the long run. But why not let Lena have some fun?  Matt Wallace doesn’t judge what his characters do, he simply offers up a situation and, through his characters, different perspectives on the situation. I like Lena, I like how she handles things, I totally get why she hooked up with Dorsky in the last book (it was a very heated moment, after all), and I also understand why Darren doesn’t like it. Considering the ethics of sleeping with a sort of superior from your work place already makes this a bad match, but then there are the vibes going on between Lena and Ritter. It’s a lot of fun to read about.

With the crew split apart between cities and the plots happening pretty much seperately from each other, the book doesn’t feel quite as fluid as the first two did. The back story for the Hollywood plot was a little neglected because I guess then the novella would have grown into a novel. With all the characters already introduced, Matt Wallace still had a lot of work showing the readers new settings and the scary dream world that is Bronko’s mind. He did a great job, although the story drifted more into horror territory than humor this time. I still can’t get enough of Sin du Jour and although I hope the next volume will be more focused (maybe not having all characters in each volume), I enjoyed reading this a lot.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

divider1

Rosamund Hodge – Crimson Bound

I wasn’t completely convinced with Cruel Beauty, Rosamund Hodge’s debut fairy tale retelling, but then I read her short spin-off Gilded Ashes and really quite liked it. In Crimson Bound, Hodge proves that she can write complicated characters with complicated relationships, as well as create her own mythology. There are still flaws in this book, but an author who gets better with every story is one I’m definitely willing to follow.

crimson boundCRIMSON BOUND
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Hardcover: 448 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “In all your life, your only choice,” Aunt Léonie said to her once, “is the path of needles or the path of pins.”

When Rachelle was fifteen, she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless—straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.
Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her hunt for the legendary sword that might save their world. Together, they navigate the opulent world of the courtly elite, where beauty and power reign and no one can be trusted. And as they become unexpected allies, they discover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?

divider1

Among the myriad of fairy tale retellings aimed at young adults, it can be difficult to find something truly original, and it usually turns out that the retellings that stray quite a bit from the original fairy tale are the ones that stick in my mind long after reading. In this sort-of-retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and a gender-swapped “The Girl With No Hands”, Rosamund Hodge, like her protagonist Rachelle, strays far from the path and creates something wonderful and fresh.

Rachelle lives with her Aunt Léonie and learns how to become the next Woodwife. But when, one day, she doesn’t stay on the path through the evil forest, she meets a forestborn and is promptly cursed by him. She must kill within three days or die. Cut to three years later – Rachelle did indeed kill within the given period of time and this murder haunts her every day of her cursed life. For now, she is a bloodbound – destined to become a forestborn herself but, until then, granted amazing strength. Bloodbound are used as a sort of bodyguard/police force that keeps out evil spirits from the forest. There’s a whole system that I won’t go into right now but that is a lot of fun to discover. It reminded me, in many ways, of Katsa from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling – a girl who, because of her powers, is used more like a weapon than a person, a girl with a million self-doubts, a pure survivor.

Rachelle is an intriguing character not just because of her past and the moment that formed her personality, but also because of her relationships. Erec, another bloodbound and her partner and friend, is just as interesting – if difficult – as Rachelle. Amélie, Rachelle’s only other friend, made for a beautiful counterpart. Where Rachelle is gloomy and pessimistic, Amélie sees the good in people (even bloodbound) and doesn’t judge easily. Although Amélie doesn’t get a lot of spotlight, she is a believable character in her own right and I loved the friendship between these two girls.

As she feels the forest tugging at her, and with the threat of the Endless Night, Rachelle plans to go hunting for a famed mythological sword that can slay the Devourer, the dark evil that controls the forest and its forestborn.

And then there’s Armand, the king’s bastard son, who lost his two hands defying a forestborn. A whole religion is rising up around this brave young man who sacrificed so much to avoid spilling innocent blood. Rachelle hates him deeply, so the story gets all the more intersting when she is charged with protecting him with her life. But Armand turns out to be more than a lying prince with no hands and destroys Rachelle’s prejudices every chance he gets. Their relationship was a lovely thing to read about, especially because Rosamund Hodge finally managed to get away from her insta-love problem. One could interpret Rachelle, Erec, and Armand as a love triangle, although I personally wouldn’t because Rachelle’s relationship to Erec is so complex and difficult that it doesn’t fit into the annoying two-boys-love-one-girl trope we see so often in YA fiction. If you do consider this a love triangle, well, then that’s the kind I like to read about.

crimson bound detail

Now I’ve talked a lot about the characters and there’s still so much more to this book. Hodge created her own mythology on which the entire kingdom is based. Religion features heavily in this story, as does the question of guilt and redemption. The myth of Zisa and Tyr would have made a great story all by itself, but as a background tale to a court intrigue/fairy tale, it was even better. The one thing that did surprise me was how, at the same time, this book is a quiet, sometimes slow-moving character story, yet there is so much going on. Hodge focused quite a bit on world-building without long exposition or info-dumping. She put great detail into her characters, the villains, protagonists, and side characters alike. But she also created a religion, a fully functioning royal court, and a class system. Not every part of this society has received the same love for detail but the atmosphere permeating the book more than makes up for that. I am quite impressed!

The ending, similarly to Cruel Beauty was a bit of a rushed mess but I still liked it. I suspect that whether you will like it to depends entirely on taste. Although it has very little in common with “Little Red Riding Hood”, Crimson Bound is a great story based on a fairy tale. I can’t wait to see what Rosamund Hodge does next. I see there’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet planned for publication in September, titled Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. A new take on Shakespeare by Rosamund Hodge sounds like just the thing. I’ll be sure to pick it up.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

divider1

Second opinions:

E.D. Baker – The Wide-Awake Princess

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

wide awake princess

THE WIDE-AWAKE PRINCESS
by E.D. Baker

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

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

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

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

divider1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish

divider1

Second opinions:

Terry Pratchett – The Shepherd’s Crown

I did it. I read the very last Discworld novel. Mind you, I still have a lot of books in the series to catch up on, but my favorite sub-set – the Witches and Tiffany Aching – is over. As expected, it was as much the author saying goodbye to his books as it was another goodbye. My boyfriend actually preordered the super expensive special edition (with the golden slip case) for me, only to be told a few weeks ago that – oops – no more copies available, after all, despite a successful preorder. I would be grumpier about that if the fact that it’s the last Discworld book wasn’t so terribly sad. Now I’m just… even sadder, I guess.

shepherds crown

THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Harper, 2015
Ebook: 276 pages
Series: Discworld #41
Tiffany Aching #5
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence:  It was born in the darkness of the Circle Sea; at first just a soft floating thing, washed back and forth by tide after tide.

A shivering of worlds.
Deep in the Chalk, something is stirring. The owls and the foxes can sense it, and Tiffany Aching feels it in her boots. An old enemy is gathering strength.
This is a time of endings and beginnings, old friends and new, a blurring of edges and a shifting of power. Now Tiffany stands between the light and the dark, the good and the bad.
As the fairy horde prepares for invasion, Tiffany must summon all the witches to stand with her. To protect the land. Her land.
There will be a reckoning…

divider1

I had a feeling long before this book was published that there would be a character death coming up. Most people knew what was coming, and it does happen in one of the first chapters. But if you’re really worried about spoilers, stop reading now. I can’t write about The Shepherd’s Crown without talking about… the thing, so anything after this paragraph is spoiler territory.

tiffany aching

Tiffany Aching has grown up a bit and is now a proper witch of the Chalk, taking care of all the business that witches concern themselves with. Whether it’s cutting an old man’s toenails or doing someone’s laundry, Tiffany doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty as long as she can help others. It’s what witches do, after all. She already has both hands full of work when news reaches her of something that we all expected to happen sooner or later. Granny Weatherwax has died. Despite knowing it was coming, the chapters building up to Granny’s death and the chapters just after she has gone were some of the most touching Pratchett has ever written. Granny, in her eternal Granny-ness, makes all the preparations, weaves her own coffin, cleans her hut, and asks her bees to be as kind to her successor as they were to her. I cried like a baby.

Nanny Ogg knows that Granny didn’t want a big fuss made about her funeral but Granny was such a respected witch that people from all over the Disc come to pay their last respect. Even Ridcully shows up, mournful and nostalgic about a love story that could have been. Death himself, who is normally so serene about his job and the people he helps to cross over, is sad about this one. But the Disc doesn’t stand still and Granny’s successor is to be Tiffany Aching – to noone’s surprise except Mrs. Earwig, who thinks she is much better suited to the job. But when even the cat You decides that Tiffany is the new leader the witches don’t have, it is settled.

Tiffany now has to deal with two steadings, two sets of people in need, and she is straining under the stress of travelling back and forth between the Chalk and Lancre. The big bad of this last Tiffany story is one who has tried to take over the world before – the Fairy Queen. This felt as re-hashed as it is, complete with another visit to the Fairy King, Magrat donning her trusty old armor, and the witches all working together to defeat a common foe. In Geoffrey Swivel, a man who wants to be a witch, we also have a beautiful conclusion to the Witches subseries. Remember in the very first book about the Discworld witches, Eskarina wished to be a magician, not a witch.

Plot-wise, this wasn’t a strong book. Even the language is noticably weaker, with many repetitions (“There will be a reckoning”) and none of the well-known little lines of wisdom that stick in your head long after you’re finished reading. But it is very much a book full of goodbyes. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that many, many characters from earlier books show up again or are at least mentioned. We see Miss Tick, Agnes/Perdita, Magrat and Verence, Eskarina, Granny Aching is mentioned along with Thunder and Lightning, even Horace the cheese gets his moment. To me – and this is pure speculation – it read very much like Terry Pratchett’s goodbye to his characters and if that turned out a little repetitive, remembering all their adventures, I can’t really fault the author for that.

It was impossible for me to read this book out of context. Were Sir Terry still with us, were this another among many Discworld books, I’d say it was a weaker Tiffany book, althugh still a pretty good Discworld novel. But it is not just one among many, it is the last one, and I felt like crying all the time while I read it. The Shepherd’s Crown may not stand too well on its own, but as a look back on all that has come before, it is just right the way it is.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

divider1

Second opinions: