Good Start, Mediocre Rest: Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

I have this strange love/hate relationship with the Wayward Children series, although it tends to lean more towards hate than love. However, since these novellas keep getting nominated for Hugo Awards by Seanan McGuire’s loyal fans, I keep having to read them. Occasionally, a really good one comes up, but mostly, this series suffers from the big problem that it wants to do great things in too little time and thus ultimately falls flat (most of the time).

come-tumbling-downCOME TUMBLING DOWN
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 206 pages
Series: Wayward Children #5
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Eleanor West was fond of saying – inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once – that her school had no graduates, only students who found somwhere else to do their learning for a time.

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Again.


If you’ve come this far in the Wayward Children series, you will be familiar with Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins were first introduced in the very first volume, then we got their backstory and a glimpse into their world – the Moors – in the second book. As difficult a relationship as I may have with these books, Jack and Jill’s story was easily the most interesting one, and not only because we follow them for much longer than most of the others. So naturally, I was excited to see Jack again and maybe get to know the Moors a little better.

Come Tumbling Down starts out really well. Our protagonist (but not really) this time is Christopher whose world is called Mariposa. It’s full of bones and skeletons and, for some reason, butterflies? As usual, one shouldn’t question the portal worlds these kids come from too much. The important thing is it’s their world where they feel at home and while, for some, that can mean candy and rainbows, for others it’s bones and blood.

When Jack surprisingly returns to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she comes with a quest. Something terrible has happened, her homelands are in danger of being destroyed, and she needs help to defeat the Master and her sister Jill if she wants to return to her life in the Moors. The quest is a go – despite the “no quests” policy the school has (and which makes absolutely no sense when you think about it) – and Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Sumi follow Jack into her world to do some adventuring.

Let me first tell you the things I liked about this book. There are a few characters that I’ve come to care about, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the series in general. Sumi’s chipper yet occasionally morbid personality is definitely a win. Her humor is very much Seanan McGuire’s humor and since I happen to find her very funny, Sumi just works for me. When someone asks you if you weren’t the one that got killed a while ago and you answer with “I got better” I just can’t help but laugh.
I also found fascinating how McGuire showed Jack’s OCD. Given the situation she’s in – Jill switched the twins’ bodies – it’s easy to see how Jack is just barely keeping it together and working hard every moment not to go mad. Especially at the beginning of the book, this was done really well.

I read the first half of this book in one sitting because it was exciting, the characters were interesting, and the plot promised a visit to a cool if creepy world and a potentially epic finale. Sadly, during the second half, it became clear that the scope of this series’ idea is too big for what can be done in a handful of novellas. Shoddy worldbuilding is okay when you only mention someone’s portal world briefly, but when you send a group of people into it, flaws become obvious. The Moors just didn’t feel like a real world. They felt exactly like what their purpose is in these stories. A few small ideas thrown together that sound good but when you put people into that world, it all feels flimsy and unbelievable. Again, I am aware that this is not the purpose of these stories. If I want epic world building and intricate politics, there are plenty of other books out there, and Seanan McGuire definitely knows how to do world building. But because the world building here is almost nonexistent and the portal worlds themselves are simply backdrop for the character drama that’s going on, the character drama needs to be really good to keep me interested.

This was another aspect that starte out very well and then just kind of ebbed away towards the end of the book. Jack and Jill’s story is the king of all sibling conflicts but I felt that the other characters (most of whom I like) got in the way of it. The story shoudl have focused more on Jack and Jill, the Master and Mr. Bleak, and the way the Moors work. Although I gladly read Sumi’s quippy and sometimes poignant remarks, any line given to other characters took precious page space away from Jack. And so, by the end of the book, I watched things go down semi-interestedly but I wasn’t invested anymore. Jack’s OCD was barely mentioned anymore (that’s not a critique, I understand why that choice was made) and we spent too much time drifting off to other characters. The kind-of-but-not-really protagonist Christopher also never gets to be a fully fleshed out character because 200 pages is simply not enough.

The problem I have with all of these books, even the ones I enjoyed, is that they are trying to do a certain thing – and it’s very transparent what that is – but they never quite accomplish it. And that’s not for lack of skill on the author’s part, it’s simply that the format of novella isn’t suited to the endeavour because there just isn’t enough time to build up the characters, make them feel real, rather than just stand-ins for various diversity points.

This series gets praised for representation a lot and while I am thrilled that there are fantasy books about all sorts of diverse people, I’d still like these people to be more than their “condition”. I think it’s doing them a disservice to reduce them all to their sexuality, their gender identity, their disorder, their weight, their skin color… It’s clear that the point of these books is to show that all people can be heroes, regardless of how they are viewed in our world. The Wayward Children are all outsiders in a way, marginalized because they “don’t fit in” for various reasons. Giving those characters stories of their own, stories where they get to be the protagonist, is wonderful and it’s probably the main reason I am still – reluctantly – reading this series. But simply saying the cast is X or Y, like checking off an imaginary diversity list, doesn’t accomplish the goal of giving them a proper story and voice. To truly establish a character with every aspect of who they are – be that Jack’s OCD or Kade’s being trans – takes time. Time that simply isn’t there when you’re trying to tell a whole story in 200 pages. So as much as I commend McGuire for writing about these characters (and I want her to continue doing so), I also think novellas are maybe not the way to go. Even Jack, one of the most memorable characters so far, came across as a bit flat by the end of this book.

I remember nitpicking in the last instalment that the readers weren’t allowed to take part in the actual adventuring but only witnessed the aftermath and the quieter moments in between the exciting parts. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have complained because it turns out, the “adventures” in this series just aren’t very good. And I get it, that’s not what the series is supposed to be about. But even in a character-focused piece, if you’re sending your characters on a quest, at least make that quest somewhat interesting, make the stakes believable and high enough for us to care, and don’t just tell us the plan, then execute the plan, then be done with it. That’s boring!

This book also reminded me of the worst instalment yet (the sugary one) and the most annoying, least likable character of them all. Cora, the former mermaid and incredibly self-absorbed wayward child, is mostly just annoying and bitchy, but when she actually does take action, it’s sure to make life even harder for everyone else. Cora believes everything is about her, even though this is clearly Jack’s story and taking place in Jack’s world. But no, every chance she gets, Cora is convinced things revolve around her somehow. Every piece of dialogue, even about the most random things, is surely an attack on her person, and everyone is definitely spending their entire time thinking and saying mean things about her. Wow, I really can’t stand that girl and I hope she soon finds a doorway back to her underwater world and we never have to read about her again. Just stay out of other people’s adventures if you’re going to make them all about yourself. She doesn’t deserve how nice people are to her because, frankly, she is useless and offended at things that have nothing to do with her. And she constantly accuses her friends (!) of making fat jokes when nobody even gives the tiniest shit about her weight and nobody at the school would ever make a hurtful joke about her because they are all outsiders and know what that’s like. At one point, she says something accusingly for which absolutely nobody but herself is responsible yet she presents herself as the victim of her evil, evil friends who dragged her into this (she wanted to come!) and for whom she almost died (she endangered herself of her own volition while Kade actually risked his own life to try and save her!!!).
I assume the 7th Wayward Children novella will be all about her and I’m curious if McGuire manages to make her at least a little sympathetic by then. Otherwise, I will just have to skip that book.

All things considered, I loved the first half of this novella. I didn’t like the second one all that much, and the ending – while I technically find it ends in a satisfying way – didn’t carry the weight it could and maybe should have. Because there are too many characters crammed into this little book, the emotional impact got lost over the course of the story. I didn’t dislike it but I didn’t love it, which will probably make it end up somewhere in the middle of my Hugo ballot this year.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

divider1

This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

Cute but Kind of Distant: Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe #WyrdAndWonder Book Review

Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?

ELATSOE
by Darcie Little Badger

Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). 

Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.

There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…

First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.

I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.

As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.

But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.

As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Middle Book Syndrome: S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper

I was looking forward to the sequel to The City of Brass very much, especially because the first book had a few evil twists at the end. While Chakraborty proves once more that she is a great storyteller and can spin tales of political intrigue really well, this book does very little to move the overall plot forward. It’s got classic middle book syndrome, which doesn’t mean it’s boring. Just… not as exciting as it could have been. But again, it delivers an ending that makes it hard not to pick up the next book right away.

SPOILERS FOR CITY OF BRASS BELOW!

kingdom of copperTHE KINGDOM OF COPPER
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2019
eBook: 640 pages
Audiobook: 23 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Alizayd al Qahtani didn’t make it a month with his caravan.

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.
Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe.
Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.
And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

After a short prologue, we jump five years into the future with our protagonists scattered over different places and established in very different roles than in the first book. Nahri, now married to Muntadhir, has become an acoomplished healer unter the tutelage of Nisreen, although she is anything but free. With her two closest relationships gone for years (Ali exiled into the desert and Dara killed), Nahri has become friends with Nisreen and also got to like her sister-in-law Zaynab a lot more.
Ali, meanwhile, now has some crazy superpowers. He can detect water, even in the middle of the desert. He now lives in Bir Nabat, an oasis, and his life is pretty okay. That is, until the plot calls for him to return to Daevabad, of course.
Dara…. well, nobody really thought he was dead, did we? Dara is returned to his body by none other than Menizheh, Nahri’s mother. And the people he hangs around with are planning a full attack on Daevabad so Menizheh can take back Suleiman’s ring and the power the Geziri have stolen from her people.

That’s the setup for Kingdom of Copper and although there are some sub-plots that keep things interesting – such as Nahri wanting to re-build a former Nahid hospital and also start healing shafit – the main story this book tells is of these three characters starting out in different places and with opposing factions of djinn, coming together again. As you can imagine, the reunion isn’t exactly a party…

What I liked about this book, much like in the first one, was the characters and the nuanced political situation. It took me a bit to remember who all the factions were, who was hating whom for what reason, and who had stolen power from which bloodline. The great thing is that there are no real good guys here. There are some pretty bad people, come to think of it, killing others for being shafit (djinn and human mixed blood). But I couldn’t say that any one character or group has completely good motives and even if they do, their methods are… ethically questionable, to say the least.
Menizheh, Nahri’s mother, interested me the most. Because Nahri has no idea her mother is still alive and one of the most powerful people at that, I was excited to learn more about her and of course see the two of them meet. Menizheh wasn’t the likable lost mother type I was hoping for, however. And while that means I didn’t like her very much, I appreciated that her character felt so real. She’s been living without her daughter for years, after all, and she is following her own plans. Why should she suddenly get teary-eyed at the thought of meeting her kid again?
I particularly loved the dynamic between the Geziri princess and princes and how we got to know them better. Ali is a well-established character but Muntadhir and Zaynab got to shine in this book. They each interact with Nahri and with each other and every scene shows a new aspect of their personality and their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil anything but it’s fairly obvious that Muntadhir has a little more than feelings of friendship for Jamshid. And Zaynab has more depth than what we got to see in the first book.
There was entirely too little Dara in this book for my taste and what we do get to see of him didn’t feel like the Dara from the first book. He’s suddenly turned into this naive, gullible guy who sets himself up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

It’s hard to say much without spoiling, but there’s quite a bit of violence in this book. What with Menizheh’s people planning a large scale attack on Daevabad, traitors at court, and tempers running high among the Daevabad population, there are terrorist attacks, brutal killings, poison, assassination attempts, and more. While these scenes were all exciting to read and not all characters are safe, they did very little to push the plot forward. Much like the rest of this book.

Things really get started at the end of this book when secrets that were revealed reach their climax, when plans are executed, when Nahri has to make quick decisions to save the people she loves. A lot of stuff happens and it’s big stuff that will have big consequences. I suspect the next book will lead us to yet another completely new situation for our characters. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the huge twist at the very end. As much fun as I had reading this book, I don’t know why this little plot needed over 600 pages. Everything this volume did was set up things for a hopefully super exciting, fast paced climax. I’ll find out soon.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

King Arthur Secret Society: Tracy Deonn – Legendborn

This was the group book for the #mythothon readathon that’s running throughout the month of April. I had seen this cover around, many people have recommended the book and I think it might even end up on a Lodestar shortlist (we’ll find out soon!). I’m not super excited about King Arthur retellings, but as this book focuses on other things, that turned out to be a plus for me.

legendbornLEGENDBORN
by Tracy Deonn

Published: Margaret K. McElderberry, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 54 minutes
Series: Legendborn #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.

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Bree Matthews is a young Black student who gets to go to UNC-Chapel Hill in an Early College program. Her very first night on campus turns out to be rather exciting, not because of some student party (although there is that) but because she witnesses things that shouldn’t be possible. Selwin Kane, a young and decidedly too handsome student, seems to be wiping people’s memories. Oh and let’s not forget that shimmery magical demon-thing that tries to attack people and is shot down by another student’s arrow – because who doesn’t carry bow and arrow with them when they go to a party? Needless to say, it’s all a bit much for Bree.
Add to this craziness that her mother died only a few months earlier, she seems to be the only Black girl on campus, and even her best friend notices that she hasn’t been the same since her mom’s death.

This novel was not what I expected. Sure, on the surface it’s your very average YA demon hunting secret society book (Clare’s Shadowhunters come to mind, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when we’re looking at TV). Sure, the secret society is based on the legend of King Arthur, which is new (at least to me), but if that had been all this story was about, I would have been mostly bored and unimpressed. But Tracy Deonn is a Black writer who put a lot of her own experience into this book and it shows.

Not only does Bree deal with the most casual and blatant racism you can imagine, she’s also dealing with grief. Except she doesn’t know how to deal with it and that makes her feel incredibly real and lovable. These were my two favorite aspects of Legendborn but it takes a while to get there. The racism is there right from the start but Tracy Deonn doesn’t just show us the way the university’s dean or a random cop assume things about Bree based on nothing but the color of her skin, she goes much further, exploring the past and the history of the college. Whether it’s a slave owner’s statue that’s standing right there on campus or Bree’s family history, I loved how we got to see different aspects of the Black experience. That sounds strange because, as you can probably imagine, that experience isn’t exactly a nice one, but I hope you know what I mean. It fleshed out the world and gave the characters more depth, it made everything feel a bit more real.

My second favorite part – the way loss and grief is talked about and handled – didn’t appeal to me immediately. In fact, at the very start of the book, I must have missed somehow that Bree’s mother’s death wasn’t all that long ago. I was a bit surprised that Bree kept thinking about herself as a numb person who shuts out all emotions because she was After-Bree and her mother’s death had impacted her so much. I’m sure it was inattention on my part, but I kind of thought her mother had been dead for several years, so I didn’t get why the pain still felt so raw to her.
But I got it after a while and that’s when I started appreciating how Deonn described Bree’s pain and the way she tries to handle it – by shutting it out mostly. Although no person feels the same when they lose someone, I did understand Bree. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that managed to make me cry.

But this book isn’t only some exploration of difficult themes, quite the opposite. On a surface level, it’s an adventure Urban Fantasy story about demon hunters and magic. Plus, the obligatory teen romance.
The whole secret society of the Order was probably the weakest aspect of this book. The society is comprised of people who can trace their bloodlines back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. One special person is “the Merlin” and he can use magic like nobody else. Other than hunting and killing the demons that occasionally invade our world, these people do what most other secret societies do. They make sure they have the power and keep it, they hate outsiders, they’re mostly racist and classist, and they live by strict rules that includes oaths and use of magic and a lot of other stuff.
My problem with it was that this particular Order could have been based on anything other than King Arthur and it still would have worked. Sure, each knight’s Scion is granted some special abilities based on what the original knight was like but that doesn’t really have any impact on the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fun to learn about how the Order works, it just doesn’t have much to do with the legend of King Arthur other than the names and/or titles. So depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up this book, you might be in for a disappointment.

I don’t have too much more to say about this book. I enjoyed the characters, although the side characters could definitely be more fleshed-out. Bree was a fantastic protagonist, some of the other more important characters also felt believable and three-dimensional, but the side characters were mostly cardboard cutouts who only existed to further the plot whenever needed.
The plot wasn’t as twisty as I was led to believe by other reviewers, but there are a couple of good surprises in there. I didn’t see either of them coming at all, and that’s exactly how I like it. The main antagonist of this book was a bit on the nose. This moustache-twirling one-track-mind baddie could have been done better, but as this is only book one in a trilogy/series, the true villain is still afoot. Maybe they’ll have a bit more to offer.
The writing was enjoyable and the book was quick to read. The ending almost felt a bit too rounded off. Sure, there are some questions left open, I see a love triangle coming up (hopefully, I’m wrong), and there’s still evil to fight. But this part of the story is done, we get a satisfying conclusion and I am quite happy with how things ended. I don’t see myself jumping on the second part of this series but I absolutely want to read more by Tracy Deonn.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

They Grow Up So Fast: Tamora Pierce – In the Hand of the Goddess

Although it wasn’t without its issues, I had a lot of fun re-reading Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in Tamora Pierce’s beloved Song of the Lioness quartet. When I jumped right into the second book, I found it even more readable than the first – meaning I would have finished it in one sitting, had life not interrupted me. But the title for this review is only half in jest. The other half is honest criticism for the crazy pacing.

in the hand of the goddessIN THE HAND OF THE GODDESS
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1984
Paperback: 264 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.

Disguised as a boy, Alanna of Trebond becomes a squire, to none other than the prince of the realm. But Prince Jonathan is much more to Alanna; he is her ally, her best friend, and one of the few who knows that she’s really a girl. Now it will take all of Alanna’s awesome skill, strength, and growing magical powers to protect him from the mysterious evil sorcerer who is bent on his destruction, and hers!
Here continues the story of Alanna, a young woman bound for glory who is willing to fight against enormous odds for what she believes in.

The story picks up about a year after the first book ended and mostly keeps up the series’ breakneck pace. But the writing has matured a bit and Tamora Pierce tried out a few new things in this book. First of all, she takes more time describing individual scenes, making the reading experience more immersive and the world of Tortall a bit more vivid. Secondly, we get glimpses into other POVs! I was positively surprised that we read about the antagonist early on. Although it was obvious from the first book, until his POV we didn’t really get a confirmation that Roger, Duke of Conté is the bad guy who’s trying to take the throne. As villains go, he’s not the most original but he has a lot of patience, I have to give him that.

The story opens with Alanna meeting the Goddess who promptly gives her a magical rock pendant (let’s all wonder if that will be important later). We are also introduced to Alanna’s new feline companion, Faithful, who stole my heart immediately because… well he’s a cat and he’s probably magical and also super smart. And then it’s back to Alanna aka Squire Alan’s life which still consists of training and doing squire-y things but now also includes potential romance.

And this is where my problems with the book begin. Alanna may be a great protagonist for kids to identify with because she is defined purely by her wish to become a knight. Otherwise, she’s pretty blank which makes certain decisions of hers difficult to understand. When George, her thieving friend, declares his love for her, for example, she says she doesn’t want romance and isn’t interested in anything other than being a knight and going on adventures. Okay, that’s cool, I guess. But then a second love intrested comes out and Alanna just goes for it. Towards the end of the book, there is one little dialogue that explores this behaviour and makes more sense of it, but up until that moment, Alanna just comes across as very inconsistent. And because everything in this series is so simplistic, this very real and believable behaviour of a teenage girl just doesn’t work.

The plot is similarly episodic and fast-paced as it was in the first book. Years pass between chapters without it every really feeling like a lot of time has passed. Alanna and her friends even go to war briefly, she’s dreading the upcoming Ordeal – a sort of exam after which she will be a proper knight – and her friends’ reaction when she reveals that she is not, in fact, Alan of Trebond, but Alanna. Things move along so fast that I couldn’t tell you what age Alanna was when they went to war, or when she had her first sexual experience. It’s all a big jumble.
I did enjoy that Alanna’s twin brother, Thom, becomes a more important character in this book. And I suspect he will become even more important in the next instalment. He may even have been the most interesting character here because he is so changed from the 11-year-old boy we met in the first book.

So I didn’t find this book in any way groundbreaking and the writing, although improved, is still very flawed. But I will continue the series because now is when things get really interesting. With Alanna’s training over, it’s anyone’s guess where she will got, what adventures she’ll encounter, and whether (and with whom) she’ll end up if indeed she chooses a romantic partner after all.
I’d recommend this for people looking for a (very) quick and light read without any real surprises but with characters that are easy to like. Bonus points for Faithful, the cat. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

So Begins the Song of the Lioness: Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure

I think I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when I first read this book but I sadly never continued the series. There aren’t many things about it I still remembered but one was that it was the first fantasy book I read that mentions menstruation and the second was that I really liked it. No matter how long it’s been, I still want to finish the Song of the Lioness series and in order to refresh my memory, I thought I’d simply re-read the first book. Well done, me!

ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1983
Paperback: 274 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book. 

From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins – one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

There’s something very comforting about picking up a childhood favorite, a book so clearly written for kids that it just lets you relax while you read it. I mean, in the first few pages, Alanna and her twin brother Thom are introduced, decide they are going to switch places because Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to be a sorcerer (their father had different plans) and they see a vision in the fire of the local sorceress promising adventures to come. A lot happens very fast and there is little description but tons of dialogue.

So Alanna cuts her hair, blackmails/convinces Coram, her blacksmith/swordsmaster, to keep her secret and help her out once they’re in the capital, and the adventure begins. Something that fascinated me was how the writing matures over the course of the book, though. Where things happen very, very quickly at first – Alanna arrives at the castle, meets her fellow students, immediately makes an enemy and some friends – things take a bit longer later on. Time moves quickly at first, almost like a montage of Alanna’s everyday life as a page, but then, gradually, more and more scenes come up that the readers can fall into a bit more. These moments let us get to know the characters better and experience Alanna’s emotions more fully. It’s almost like the book starts extremely fast-paced to keep the (young) reader interested and then, once we’re hooked, slowly begins to take its time exploring the world and characters and plot. To me this meant that I enjoyed reading more and more the further along I got and that’s definitely something I can get behind.

I also noticed that the lack of flowery description meant my own brain had to work harder and I had to use my imagination if I wanted to “see” what someone’s clothes looked like or how a room was furnished. Turns out, I really missed that! Fantasy books these days are so well thought out, with perfect world building and clear rules that they often leave little for the readers’ imaginations to fill in. Tamora Pierce’s book is the opposite. You get a character’s hair and eye color, their general body shape (tall, short, muscular, skinny, etc.) but other than that, it’s all up to you what people and places look like.

The one thing I had remembered from my first read and which struck me again this time was that this children’s fantasy book mentions menstruation and just… deals with it. Alanna is pretending to be a boy, which is hard enough when the boys go swimming, but it gets even harder when her monthy cycle begins. What with the twins’ disinterested father and dead mother, nobody told Alanna that her body would change this way, so her first reaction is panic and shame. A trusted woman then explains to her in very simple an straightforward terms what’s up and how Alanna can deal with it. Alanna may be outraged at the annoyance her period poses but she takes it in stride, just like she does all the challenges her life as a page poses.

This book doesn’t really have a big overarching plot but rather sets up everything for the rest of the series. Alanna goes through the rigorous training to become a page, then a squire, then a knight. She makes some friends – among them the charming King of Thieves George, the Prince Jonathan, and her fellow students. She also has to use her magic, altough she doesn’t like it. Which adds another fantasy element to this secondary world novel. Although the magic isn’t explained super well, I love that it’s immediately clear that it has a cost. When a terrible sickness sweeps over the capital, the healers are soon exhausted and get sick themselves because using their magic for healing takes a toll on their own bodies.

My Thoughts Literally!: Series Review: The Song of the Lioness Quartet by  Tamora Pierce

One aspect that I definitely didn’t notice or think about when I read this as a teenager was how the whole “girl pretending to be a boy” thing would feel if a trans person read it. This is a well-known and beloved trope that creates tension and sometimes funny moments, but Alanna is often annoyed at her changing body, her breasts growing, her period starting, and expresses that she’d rather not be a girl because it complicates everything. She is then told in no uncertain terms that she has to accept her body as it is and just learn to live with it. Tamora Pierce probably didn’t have any big thoughts about trans kids reading this because, well, I don’t believe that this was talked about a lot in the early 1980s, but it did make me, reading this in 2021, think about it. I’m not sure hwat kind of a message this book sends to trans children so I would probably think twice about gifting it to one.

At the end of the book, a sort of mini-adventure/side quest happens that is over as quickly as it begins but serves to set up the villain for the next book(s). In general, most chapters are almost self-contained and tell their own little story. Despite the episodic nature and super fast pace, I had so much fun reading this. As I said, the fact that the language does evolve a bit helped. I also liked that we follow Alanna through several years of her life and watch her grow up, all within the matter of 270 pages. As I write this, I’m already halfway through the second book which I can tell you reads much more grown-up, offers new POVs and takes more time telling the story. It may not be a groundbreaking middle grade series for our age, but boy, is it great to help me out of a reading slump and race through books like I did when I was a child myself.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Song of the Lioness:

  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of The Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis für faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good