A Good Trilogy-Ending: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Obsidio

After reading Gemina a few weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to find out how this series ended, even though I planned to wait a little. As expected, this final volume brings together the larger story of the previous two books, plus adding a set of new characters and their story. I believe adding a third romantic couple to the mix was a mistake that overloaded an already big book. Also, beware of massive spoilers for Illuminae and Gemina below!

OBSIDIO
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by: Knopf, 2018
Ebook: 618 pages
Series: The Illuminae Files #3
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Crowhurst, G: Perhaps we should get proceedings under way?

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza—but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion?
Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys—an old flame from Asha’s past—reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

This book picks up pretty seamlessly after the ending of Gemina, but in addition to characters that are already known – Kady and Ezra, Nik and Hannah, plus the various side characters – there are two new protagonists in town. Asha Grant, Kady’s cousin, remained on Kerenza IV after the attack and through her eyes, we learn not only that there are still people alive out there, but also what their lives have been like during the last seven months. Let me sum it up for you, it wasn’t pretty. Asha’s romantic interest and our second protagonist is Rhys, a tech specialist working for BeiTech.

The set up for this third galactic romance is pretty amazing, but unfortunately the execution felt very lackluster. As if the authors thought they had to include another romance but didn’t really feel it. And that’s exactly how I felt while reading it. We are introduced to both characters and I liked them well enough. Their romantic backstory, however, was told carelessly in one small chapter – it was definitely not enough to get me invested in their romance at all. Plus, their previous time as a couple and the way they broke up, felt kind of ridiculous, like there had to be some drama and this was the desperate attempt to create it. I found it all really silly, despite liking the characters as such.

But we also follow characters who are old friends by now. Naturally, I needed to know how Kady, Ezra, Hannah, Nik, and AIDAN (let’s not forget AIDAN!) are doing. These kids have their hands full yet again. On the one hand, their united fleet encompasses way more people than their ship can handle – so yay, certain death by oxygen deprevation – they also need some sort of plan on how to move forward. Do they go back to Kerenza in the hopes of using the mobile jump station there? Do they run the other way, knowing that they’re probably all going to die before they find any help? As if that weren’t enough, the situation on the ship gets even worse by overcrowding, uprisings, civilians who are unhappy with command, and… oh yeah, did I mention AIDAN is still there and still as unstable as ever?

While the plot is just as exciting as it was in the first two books, this one suffered from overcrowding in more than one way. Before, there were only two main characters plus a few side characters on which we could concentrate. Following their lives, the ordeals they went through, made for a perfectly thrilling sci-fi adventure. Now we have not two, not four, but six protagonists and all the side characters that surround them, and there was simply not enough time to focus properly on any of them. With Kady/Ezra and Hannah/Nik, that wasn’t so bad because we already knew them. But Asha and Rhys definitely suffered as characters and especially as a couple because there wasn’t enough time spent on their characters or their development. So the emotional impact of their stories remained rather low for me.

The other characters also don’t really get to shine. This book made it even more obvious to me how similar all of them are. Kady, Hannah, and Asha could totally be interchanged – the only things that set them apart are their various specialties. Kady, the computer mastermind, Hannah, the martial arts tactician, and Asha, the nursing intern with a dark-ish backstory… but other than that, they are exactly the same person. They have the same sense of humor, the same desperate need to do the right thing and to save people. I understand why the authors did it that way – these characters are easy to follow, their motives always good, and they kick serious ass. But when you put them all into the same book, this lazy writing becomes more obvious and actually disrupting. You should be able to recognise a character from what they’re saying without needing the “he said”, “she said”. Here, I frequently had to check which characters was talking because they were all so similar that you couldn’t tell otherwise.

That may all sound like I didn’t enjoy the book but the truth is, I read it just as quickly as the others because the writing style works really well. We are still getting transcribed camera footage (and we find out who transcribed it!), chat messages, radio communications, and written letters. It makes for a fast-paced novel without a single boring page and I enjoyed reading this very much. It was mostly afterwards, when I thought about why I liked the book, that I realised how certain aspects of it aren’t all that well done. And it’s not like this third book provided some vital information to bring down BeiTech – Illuminae and Gemina already did enough of that. This was simply the book that puts it all together and gets us the conclusion we have been waiting for.

One more thing I have to mention is AIDAN. That crazy computer is probably the best developed character in this series. He is both very simple in that he adheres to the rules programmed into him, and at the same time incredibly complex because he has learned to interpret and re-interpret these rules. However you describe him, I have grown to love that AI over the course of these novels and I liked how his story line was ended. All things considered, this was another fun novel from a great author duo.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Growing Up in a Fairy Tale: Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places

This is a book that I would normally never pick up. Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest – we all do it to a certain degree. And this cover has been begging me not to read the book. But it did win the Mythopoeic Award in 2012, I read all the other nominees and thought, if this book won over Cat Valente’s Deathless, there must be something to it. And it was definitely much better than the cover made me expect. But not so good that I personally would have given it an award.

THE UNCERTAIN PLACES
by Lisa Goldstein

Published by: Tachyon, 2011
Paperback: 237 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: It was Ben Avery who introduced me to Livvy, Livvy and her haunted family.

An ages-old family secret breaches the boundaries between reality and magic in this fresh retelling of a classic fairy tale. When Berkeley student Will Taylor is introduced to the mysterious Feierabend sisters, he quickly falls for enigmatic Livvy, a chemistry major and accomplished chef. But Livvy’s family-vivacious actress Maddie, family historian Rose, and their mother, absent-minded Sylvia-are behaving strangely. The Feierabend women seem to believe that luck is their handmaiden, even though happiness does not necessarily follow. It is soon discovered that generations previous, the Feierabends made a contract with a powerful, otherworldly force, and it is up to Will and his best friend to unravel the riddle of this supernatural bargain in order to save Livvy from her predestined fate.

Will Taylor tells the story of how he met Livvy Feierabend and learned about all the strange things that surrounded her family. Will and his best friend Ben are college students in the 70ies, soon they both go out with the elder Feierabend sisters Livvy and Maddie, and not long after that, Will discovers that there is something strange about that family. It’s not just the strange, massive house they live in, or the fact that their vineyard has always been going well. It’s the behaviour of the three daughters as well and the way they react when people make innocent jokes about fairy tales.

Fairy tales, you see, are something the Feierabends have some real experience of. I don’t think the first quarter of the book can be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll tell you that Will discovers why the Feierabends always seem to succeed in whatever they do, and what kind of prize they pay for that. Naturally, young and in love as he is, Will wants nothing more than to break that blessing/curse because he dreams of being with Livvy forever.

What follows is an interesting tale that intertwines fairy tale elements with real world issues. We get to see Will and his friends grow into adults, some even into parents. We see the effect that dealing with people from the Other Realm has on everybody’s lives and we delve deeper into the past to find out the truth of the fairy bargain at the heart of this novel. There was much to discover and lots of hints to well-known fairy tales. The particular tale that is important in The Uncertain Places may not be one we know in the real world but it feels like it could be and there certainly are many variants of its plot. As a fairy tale lover, I really enjoyed how well Goldstein managed to mix these fictional bits in with fairy tales we have in our world as well.

The plot was also quite  fun. Breaking a curse and dealing with faeries (or whatever you want to call them) usually guarantees a thrilling book. And there were scenes that I had to rush through because I needed to know what happened next. But there were also chapters that deal more with everyday issues, such as Will’s job, his marriage, or traveling from one place to another to see how old friends are doing.

The only problem I had – and sadly, it’s a big one – was that I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Sure, Will was likeable and I wanted him to succeed, but I didn’t really care about anyone. I was watching them, doing their thing, hoping that everything would turn out well in the end, but the story didn’t absorb me, it didn’t evoke any particular emotional response in me. And what makes it worse is that there was so much potential. The Feierabend family were all put in a really interesting situation that involved hard choices. The girls grew up with a cloud of tragedy hanging over their heads, knowing that any day, the bad thing that happens could happen. But the story is told by Will, in first person, so we never really get to see the more intersting characters’ point of view.

Had this book told through multiple POVs or even in third person omniscient, I think it would have been a much more exciting story. By showing us Will’s limited point of view, the best parts of the story are kept at a distance. I wanted to know what it was like being Maddie or Livvy growing up, or Rose, the third daughter who was always left out of the elder girls’ games. Or even Sylvia, their mother, who may be blessed with fortune but has been left by her husband and constantly has to worry about her daughters. But we only get glimpses of that through Will’s eyes and if you ask me, those eyes, perceptive as they may be, only see a small part of what’s there.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read, but neither the writing style nor the characters felt in any way award-worthy to me. This is the kind of book that I like to compare to a night at the movies, where you enjoy the movie while you’re watching it but when you get home afterwards, you already forget all the details. A week later, you don’t know what the characters were called and the whole thing turns out to be not particularly memorable. As well as the fairy tales were interwoven with a story set in our world, it didn’t lift the book over an average rating for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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

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

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Light and Easy Fantasy: Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns

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

SORCERY OF THORNS
by Margaret Rogerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

Magical Realism: Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread

I’ve been in love with Helen Oyeyemi’s writing ever since I read Boy, Snow, Bird and although Mr. Fox was a bit too experimental for my taste, her latest novel was a good one again. Not as amazing as Boy, Snow, Bird maybe, but an interesting story that combines fairy tale elements with magical realism.

GINGERBREAD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Macmillan, 2019
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food.

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

This book felt like several stories wrapped into one. It begins with Harriet Lee, mother of Perdita Lee, trying to get into the social circle of the other parents of her daughter’s classmates. This proves more difficult than expected, despite her generous gift of home-made gingerbread. It’s also the story of her daughter Perdita, who wants to find out more about her heritage and the country of Druhástrana which doesn’t seem to exist yet her mother and grandmother supposedly came from. They even have the accent to prove it.

After Perdita takes radical action in order to visit Druhástrana, Harriet opens up to her about her own childhood on that island nation that is only mentioned as a myth. The descriptions of Druhástrana and the farmstead where Harriet spent her childhood are exactly as dreamlike and fairy tale-esque as you’d expect them to be. This made-up country is filled with weird places, weirder traditions, and some weird people. Whether it’s the Parkers, who train homing pigeons (unfortunately, the last ones never returned) or the Lees themselves, who are farmers like everyone else but who also happen to make the most delicious gingerbread.

It is during that childhood that Harriet meets Gretel, one of the stranger characters of this book. And considering that everybody is a little strange here, that’s saying a lot. But the two girls become friends quickly and it is through Gretel that Harriet gets to leave the farmstead for Druhá City where she becomes a Gingerbread Girl. She and her friends promote and sell their famous gingerbread in exchange for money that they can send home to their poor families. Except, Clio Kercheval, the woman who runs this operation, isn’t all she appears to be.

In fact, the Kercheval family features prominently in this book as Harriet gets to know more of them. Her journey leads her to London, more Kerchevals, and more gingerbread. This is where I stop telling you about the plot – it’s not the main thing of the book anyways. Although don’t be fooled, there is a plot and although it meanders at time, things fall into place at the end and make at least some sense. 🙂
On the way, there are talking dolls, a teenage pregnancy, friendship rings, lottery tickets, and maybe even a ghost.

What’s really more important for this book is its characters and their relationships. Most of them are complete mysteries, their motives unknown, their characters difficult to understand, but that was a large part of the appeal for me. I also enjoyed figuring out how everything fits together, learning who Perdita’s father is (her mother never told her) and finding out whether there will ever be a reunion between Harriet and Gretel.

Oyeyemi’s best quality, though, is her writing style. I don’t know any author who writes quite like her. Sometimes, there are pages upon pages that just flow into each other, changing subject rapidly but never taking you out of that reading flow. It’s impressive, to say the least, and at times felt like wandering around in a dream. You go from Harriet e-mailing the other parents to her feeding her daughter gingerbread to her remembering a girl named Gretel, who she made a promise to long ago all in the matter of a chapter but these topics bleed into each other so effortlessly that it all feels organic and makes the book hard to put down.

Although the title and cover could make you think this is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, it’s not. Oh, there are definitely mentions of the fairy tale, there are hints here and there, little winks to elements of the Grimms’ story but it’s definitely not a retelling the way I understand it. Instead of telling of two siblings who are lost in the woods, this is the story of a mother and daughter who are lost in the world and just now starting to find their place. It’s about an intricate family network, about friendships that last decades, and, yes, about gingerbread. While I didn’t find this tale as exciting and emotional as Boy, Snow, Bird, it had many things going for it and the ending was a thing of pure beauty. I can’t wait to see what Oyeyemi comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Trickster Tales: Joanna M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki

As someone who loves mythology, I have wanted to read this retelling ever since it was published. But you know how it is. Sometimes it takes a reading challenge to finally give you that push to pick up certain books. I’m glad I did, because although I wasn’t blown away by this story, it did deliver pretty much what I had hoped for. A hilarious narrator, fun tales of gods doing mischief, and a large dose of Norse myths. What’s not to like?

THE GOSPEL OF LOKI
by Joanne M. Harris

Published by: Gollancz, 2014
Paperback: 302 pages
Series: Loki #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence:

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods – retold from the point of view of the world’s ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki’s recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.

From the first moment I opened this book, I knew I would love the narration. The glossary of gods alone shows you just what kind of guy Loki is and whether you will like the style of his story. As he introduces his fellow gods, there is a certain amount of sass, and it is quite obvious whether he likes them or not so much.

The story begins at the very beginning. I mean the beginning of the worlds, explaining how Odin and the gods came to be, how Asgard was created, the big war between Asgardians and Ice Folk/Rock Folk/what-have-you – and of course, also of how Loki, a demon of Chaos, came to be one of the gods in Asgard. I found the beginning a bit slow because I wanted to read about Loki’s escapades, but of course for those to happen, he has to live in Asgard first. But worry not, it’s not a long book so this introductory phase isn’t long either.

Once Loki is established as a god in Asgard, things really get going. He’s not exactly accepted and he does his very best to antagonise his fellow gods. Sometimes, he’s just unlucky, but mostly, he’s just an idiot. What comes next are hilarious tales of Loki, sometimes accompanied by Thor, doing mischief and cleverly getting out of most of his scrapes. I adored the middle part of this novel and would have gladly read another 200 pages of Loki’s trips around the worlds, trying to bring upon the downfall of the other gods.

A large part of this book’s appeal comes from the narration and the writing style in general. You’d expect Norse gods to speak in a medieval-ish tone of voice, hearing them in your head with a Serious English Accent or something. But Joanne M. Harris went another way. These gods talk like modern people, cursing generously, insulting each other in highly original ways, and in generally really funny dialogue. Loki’s first person narration adds the cherry on top. Not only is it humorous, but his personality shines through on every page. Even though he behaves less than honorable on more than one account, you can’t help but love the guy.

The other characters are kind of flat, but hey, they’re gods and they’re stuck in their own skin. They are supposed to be one-dimensional. Thor with his brute strength, but not a lot of brains, Freyja the gorgeous but vain one, Odin, always mysterious and aloof… I wasn’t expecting them to have layers and their dominant personality trait actually made for some great comedy.

The ending, although generously foreshadowed throughout the whole book, was a bit of a let down. Loki tells you right from the start that the world is going to end, that the gods’ reign will come to a close, and he does his best to wiggle his way out of oblivion. Whether it’s him trying to gain a favor from his daughter Hel, goddess of the Underworld, or recruiting his other children, the Fenris wolf and the world serpent Jormungand, he’s always looking for a loophole out of the prophecy that foretells his (and all the other gods’) downfall.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It didn’t have a lot of depth but it was fun, it made Loki into an even more interesting character than he already was based on the Norse myths, and it was a quick read. I will definitely be checking out the sequel, The Testament of Loki, because boy am I curious  what other shenanigans our favorite trickster can get himself into.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

Disturbing Poetry: Maryse Meijer – Northwood

Here’s one of those books that seemed to scream my name. Sold as “part fairy tale, part horror story” would have been enough, but the story of a love affair gone bad and a woman dealing with the aftermath was what sold it. It’s also a nicely short work that fits really well into my reading challenge and readathon plans. 🙂

NORTHWOOD: A NOVELLA
by Maryse Meijer

Published by: Black Balloon Publishing, 2018
Ebook: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I don’t want you anymore.

Part fairy tale, part horror story, Northwood is a genre-breaking novella told in short, brilliant, beautifully strange passages. The narrator, a young woman, has fled to the forest to pursue her artwork in isolation. While there, she falls in love with a married man she meets at a country dance. The man is violent, their affair even more so. As she struggles to free herself, she questions the difference between desire and obsession—and the brutal nature of intimacy. Packaged with illustrations by famed English artist Rufus Newell and inventive, white-on-black text treatments by award-winning designer Jonathan Yamakami, Northwood is a work of art as well as a literary marvel.

Okay, let me tell it to you true. When I opened this book, my very first thought was “Oh man, is this all in verse?”. And it’s not that I don’t like poetry in general, I just didn’t expect this book, which is called Nortwood: A Novella to be told in verse. So I went into it with a bit of discomfort, because I’m just not a fan of free verse and I don’t think the way the letters are arranged on the page can make up for any lack of talent. It’s an unnecessary flourish that mostly feels pretentious to me. All the more impressive, then, that this book turned my opinion right around.

While the style didn’t really gel with me (not even by the end), it also didn’t get in the way of the storytelling. And boy, what a story Meijer has to tell! You wouldn’t think a book this slim, and told in verse, could pack such a punch, but I had to put it down several times and watch cute animal videos on Youtube because it was just so tough to read and some chapters really got to me.

So what’s this about? A young woman goes to live in a hut in the wood to escape city life and focus on her art. There, she meets an older married man, begins an affair with him that includes a lot of violence (some or even most of it consensual? It’s kind of hard to tell). When the affair ends and she goes back to the city, she can’t let go and her obsession with him grows ever stronger. And thus Meijer takes us down a terrifying spiral with her protagonist, told in so few words, but so powerful that I couldn’t finish the book in one sitting. Even though at that page count, and with the way poetry is just quick to read, I should have been able to easily.

Poetry, much like visual arts, is very much a matter of taste. There are few poets that I like but those few, I love. Even with poetry that’s  not up my alley, I can often appreciate it for what it does, understand the work that went into it and see what the author is doing. When it gets too transparent, however, I get annoyed. Mariyse Meijer writes her poems as chapters, some of which are very different from others. The ones I disliked the most where the “artistically arranged” ones, where the font crawls across the page, where you definitely don’t get anything resembling a sentence, rather snippets of half-sentences. That just doesn’t work for me, so those chapters left me cold.

But the slightly longer chapters, the ones that still don’t have complete sentences (because, hey, it’s poetry) but that tell a story, those were pretty amazing. Without me even noticing, I slipped into the story and watched with horror how the protagonist became more and more unhinged. Sometimes crude words are thrown into the otherwise rather… well, poetic verses, probably for shock value. Well, they did shock me but they also jarred me out of the narrative because they didn’t feel like they belong. I’m not sure that was the intended purpose but it definitely had an effect.

I felt the ending was also a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t really expecting anything – it could have gone either way. With our protagonist ruining her own life completely because of her unhealthy obsession, with her getting out of it, experiencing a rebirth of sorts. There were so many more possibilites, but the ending the author chose wasn’t really satisfying to me. This book built up so much emotion that the actual ending fell rather flat. But still, I am impressed that a book which I approched with a certain degree of prejudice managed to grab me the way it did and make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

Fairy Hunger Games: Peadar O’Guilin – The Call

As premises go, this one’s got me hooked immediately. An alternate Ireland where all teenagers eventually receive The Call – which means they are transported to the Grey Land, the fairy realm if you like. Except the fairies there are bloodthirsty, horrible creatures, who hunt the humans down, torture them, turn them into strange creatures, and generally have a good laugh at their suffering. So yeah, that premise reminded me a lot of how I felt when I first heard about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Now all that was left to do for this book was stick the execution.

THE CALL
by Peadar O’Guilin

Published by: Scholastic, 2016
eBook: 320 pages
Series: Grey Land #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom.

3 minutes and 4 seconds. The length of time every teenager is ‘Called’, from the moment they vanish to the moment they reappear. 9 out of 10 children return dead. Even the survivors are changed. The nation must survive. Nessa, Megan and Anto are at a training school – to give them some chance to fight back. Their enemy is brutal and unforgiving. But Nessa is determined to come back alive. Determined to prove that her polio-twisted legs won’t get her killed. But her enemies don’t just live in the Grey Land. There are people closer to home who will go to any length to see her, and the nation, fail…

Nessa has known about The Call for a while. She goes to school – which, considering the situation Ireland has been in for the last decades, isn’t like regular school. Nor does it have the charms of Hogwarts. The kids there are taught to fight, to run, to track and keep from being followed. The methods are sometimes brutal, like leaving first years naked in the woods in the middle of the night, terrified and with no idea what’s going on. But nothing could be as bad as what’s actually going to happen to these kids. For when they receive The Call, when they are transported to the Grey Land, naked and with no supplies, they will need all the skills they can gather to survive. They may only have to last 24 hours in the Grey land, but a mere one in ten manages to come back alive. And even then, they are usually changed severely. If not physically, then definitely psychologically. The survivors are celebrated but they rarely join in the happiness.

With an idea like that, you know you’re in for something grim, maybe even gorey. The chances of survival are slim but Nessa has the additional challenge of misformed legs from the polio she had as a child. She makes up for her lack of speed with strength, especially in her arms. And although she realises that the fact that she just can’t run like the other kids makes her even less likely to survive, she works around that. By making herself crutches from tree branches, and by using the expertly! What Nessa also does to survive the inevitable Call is close herself off from all feelings. That may be quite sensible and mature, but it also made her a very hard character to like. Through her POV, we know that although she fights against them, she does have feelings for her best friend Megan and for Anto, one of the boys in her school. But the way she acts is cold and so I had a hard time identifying with her as the protagonist.

The story is told through multiple POVs, sometimes recurring, sometimes a character we only meet once. I found this added much needed layers to some of the side characters, but the one who stood out the most was Conor, the school bully. He likes to think of himself as a king, and his cronies are the Knights of his Round Table. He looks down on Nessa – calling her Clip! Clop! – and others who show any kind of physical weakness in his eyes.

If you expect this book to be mostly about Nessa surviving the Grey Land, think again. The bulk of the story takes place at school, showing the reader what life there is like, what kind of punishment the kids face if they misbehave (it’s called The Cage… you can imagine it’s not nice) and what their lessons look like. Some of Nessa’s school mates receive the Call during this story and when they do, we jump into their point of view and live through that nightmare with them. And trust me, it’s always a nightmare!

But I also had a big problem with these trips to the Grey Land. The kids are only gone from the real world for three minutes and four seconds, but there, they have to last an entire 24 hours. We, as the readers, go with them to the Grey Land and while many of them die there, there are survivors. And in no way did I believe for a second that the plot we got to read could have stretched out an entire day. Sure, there are passages where we’re told the teenager in question is running for a long time. But not 20 hours long! The chapters are very short which makes for a thrilling, entertaining read, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to actually buy that the time certain characters spent in the Grey Land were 24 hours.

The second big plot point happens in the real world. Strange things happen at school and in the surrounding woods, a different school is wiped out entirely, which suggests the work of Sidhe spies. So in addition to Nessa’s already cold personality, she can’t know whom to trust or who might be a fairy in disguise, trying to kill all the teenagers before they even make it to the Grey Land and have a chance to come back.

I found the plot as such really interesting and I loved the idea – dark as it is – of the Call itself. There are some truly gruesome things that happen to teenagers, both the ones that return alive and the ones who only come back as corpses. The Grey Land and the mythology that goes with it was also intriguing and I look forward to learning more about it in the second book. But I couldn’t help but feel that this story could have used another 100 pages for character development. While Nessa’s class mates all have names and some get one characteristic, they all remain quite bland, like cardboard cutouts. Even Nessa herself doesn’t feel like a real fleshed-out person. So when bad things happen to these kids, I was shocked and felt they were tragic, but more in a bystander kind of way. Like when you hear someone had a terrible accident and you feel for them, but in a distant way. What I wanted was to care enough for the characters that I would really, really feel it when one of them dies. That didn’t happen.

As this was also one of the quickest reads and there wasn’t a single boring moment, I can recommend the book. Just don’t expect a lot of depth. But I will check out the sequel (which is also the last part) to see if I’ll finally get that character development and if a satisfying conclusion can be found in the war between the humans of Ireland and the Sidhe.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

A Predictable Adventure: Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone

I steered well away from this book when it came out because it’s clearly one of those books that get hyped based on a (gorgeous!) cover and a cool description alone. Flocks of people swear it’s fantastic, simply because it looks great and the premise sounds nice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of book that usually disappoints. While I didn’t think this was completely disappointing, it definitely isn’t the book that the interwebs say it is but instead a mostly thrilling, albeit very predictable, adventure story in a cool setting.

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
by Tomi Adeyemi

Published by: Henry Holt, 2018
eBook: 544 pages
Series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Pick me.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Zélie lives in Orisha, a magical version of Nigeria, but her life there isn’t easy. As a diviner – a young person who should get magical abilities by the age of thirteen but hasn’t – she belongs to the lowest caste of people. Although not explicitly slaves, diviners are kept down by the monarchy and forced even further down by ever increasing taxes. If they fail to pay these taxes, they are sent to the stocks where hard labor eventually kills them. So… “not an easy life” is an understatement.
Amari is a princess, living in the palace, and her life naturally differs a lot from Zélies. Unlike her father, the king, Amari is sympathetic to the diviners because her maid is a diviner and also the only person she could call a friend. Clearly not made for princesshood, Amari struggles with the rules her mother imposes upon her. When a magical scroll appears in the palace that is supposed to give diviners their magic back, however, Amari takes action, defies her father, and runs away with the scroll.
Amari’s brother Inan may currently be Captain of the Royal Guard, but he will be king someday. His driving force is making his father proud and proving he has what it takes to rule the kingdom. Which, in his father’s eyes is mostly cruelty and a complete disregard for human life – if that life belongs to a diviner, at least…
When Amari and Zélie are thrown together by fate, and Zélie learns of the scroll’s powers, the two girls and Zélie’s brother Tzain set out on a quest. Which leads them to another quest to bring magic back to Orisha and restore power to the diviners so they can finally fight back against a monarchy that wants to keep them down at all costs.

There were many things I liked about this book, but there were also many things that I found grating. The constant repetitions made me roll my eyes a lot! Yes, we get it, Zélie’s mother was executed during the Raid (the time when magic was eradiated and the maji were killed, leaving their diviner children without magic). There’s really no need to mention it in every single chapter. The prologue does such a good job in describing the horrors Zélie felt when she saw her mother captured. Constantly mentioning it again and again takes away from that, and even blunted my feelings as a reader. Similarly, an event that happened between Amari and her brother Inan keeps coming up over and over again. Please, dear authors, trust your readers enough to believe that they can remember the horrible things that happened to your characters. We won’t forget even if we’re not reminded of it for a few chapters.

The thing that bothered me the most, though, was how flat the characters were. There are four protagonists, three of which get POV chapters. Zélie, Amari, and Inan are almost indistinguishable in voice. While Inan at least follows a different path and is out to destroy magic, the two girls could have been the same person in different circumstances. When I put the book down mid-chapter, I sometimes had to check whose POV I was in to figure it out. Good characters have their own voice and you don’t need chapter headings to know who you’re following at any given moment. I hope this improves in the author’s upcoming books.

One thing this book was praised for was the setting and the world building. Now, I’m all for setting fantasy stories in places other than medieval Europe, and I loved reading about characters with dark skin and – in the diviner’s case – white hair. Adeyemi’s descriptions are quite good and would make for an excellent movie. Both the ryders, huge animals like lions and panthers with a few extra horns, and the people are described in a way that I found stunning. The magic system is kind of based on the elements – there are maji who can control water, fire, etc. but also ones like Zélie whose powers have to do with the dead and their souls. Although it’s nothing new, I really liked how magic was used and the powers it gave its wielders. As for the world as such, I found the world building rather weak. That’s another thing that could get better in the upcoming sequels.

Finally, the plot was so very, very predictable. Not only were the romances obvious from the start, the bigger events weren’t even trying to be interesting. They run away with the scroll, get some information on how to get magic back, and then they just… go and try to do that, I guess. Thank goodness, things don’t go smoothly. Because even though you know what’s going to happen, the way battles and various adventures are described is just thrilling. It’s like watching an action movie where you know the heroes will make it out alive and well and nothing’s really at stake, but it’s fun to watch anyway. And, to Adeyemi’s credit, the ending – although kind of a stupid cliffhanger – does hold one little twist in store that made me curious for the rest of the series.

Now I’ve made it all sound way worse than it was but I’d actually recommend the book. You just have to know what to expect going in. You’re not going to get an N. K. Jemisin style exploration of race or a Brandon Sanderson-esque world building. You’ll simply get a fun adventure story with a nice (if predictable) romance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about book hypes and Goodreads ratings while reading this novel.  My conclusion (based on no research whatsoever but simply my own musings) is that a good cover has a huge impact. Certain buzz words, character traits, or settings add another layer to the hype – and by then it doesn’t really matter if the book is any good, because enough people are talking about it which makes others buy it which makes at least part of the people who bought it read it and then the whole thing starts over again with the sequel – which in the case of this series has an even more stunning cover to offer.
By this I don’t want to say that this is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a totally fine book that I read quickly and that entertained me from beginning to end. But I definitely don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking about it. The plot was predictable, the developing romance(s) could be guessed from very early on, and the characters were cardboard. But the adventure is thrilling, the magic is cool, and when I’m in the mood for a light Hollywood-type fun story that doesn’t require too much thinking, I’ll be back for the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good