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

Zombies vs. Ex-Slaves: Justina Ireland: Dread Nation

While this year’s Hugo shortlist in general is fantastic, the still pretty new YA category – the Lodestar Award, and Not-A-Hugo – is more of a mixed bag. Which is not a bad thing, to be honest. It makes ranking these six novels much easier.

DREAD NATION
by Justina Ireland

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 455 pages
Series: Dread Nation #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

I absolutely loved the voice of this book – which is the voice of its protagonist Jane McKeene – from the very first moment. She is sharp, she is no-nonsense, she lies a lot but at least she lets us readers in on her lies, she cares deeply about her family and friends, and she wants to do what is right. With that as a basis, very little could go wrong for me. And Dread Nation did in fact keep me entertained until the end, even though I felt the plot started meandering a bit at a certain point and the book left  too much open for the sequel(s).

The premise of this story  may sound cool, but if you’re tired of zombies (like me), you may have stayed away from Dread Nation so far (like me). In this alternate version of America, the War Between the States was interrupted by the dead rising. So people put down their arms against each other and instead decided to take up arms against the common threat. As for the slaves, they are technically freed, but not really because while they’re not considered anyone’s property anymore, they don’t have a lot choice in life. Jane is training to become an Attendant: a fighter of the dead to protect the living – but with manners. That’s the only “promotion” a black girl can hope for, to become a bodyguard for white people, rather than being sent to fight a whole army of zombies. So let’s just say, while slavery as it used to be no longer exists,  black people’s lives haven’t really much improved.

Jane simply wants to finish her studies and return home to her mother and aunt, but Things get in the way. Local families go missing, Jane’s friend and former lover Red Jack turns up again, and Jane gets stuck in stupidly dangerous situations with her most detested fellow student, Katherine. Jane resents  Katherine because she  is gorgeous and can pass for white. But these two girls are stuck together for quite an adventure. I loved their dynamic, I loved how they turned from frenemies into friends, especially how Jane started rethinking her prejudice against Katherine. Another big plus was the backstory we learn slowly through letters sent from Jane to her mother. For the most part of the book, this is a one-sided correspondence, but these brief interludes between chapters show more of Jane’s character than some of the chapters themselves. There is also more to Jane’s past than we get to see at first but I wasn’t a big fan of that plot twist and I won’t reveal it here because spoilers. Let’s just say that I loved Jane regardless of her past, because she is a badass with a good heart.

The world building really has potention. I didn’t find the premise hugely original (pairing zombies with whatever has been done too many times), but Justina Ireland really made something of it. We don’t just get to see how people defend themselves against the dead already risen, but scholars do experiments in order to figure out how to cure the plague, or how to vaccinate the living against it – I definitely got the sense that more is happening in this world than we got to see through Jane’s eyes. And that fleshed-out feeling, that sense that the world is bigger and just organic, is a sign of good writing to me.

The weakest part of this was definitely the plot. While it started really well and I could have read an entire novel set in the Miss Preson’s school, Jane sets out on an adventure. At one point, I thought it would take her many places, but then the friends kind of stay put in this one place. The villain was obivous, the conspiracy was also pretty easy to guess, and most situations that put the protagonists in danger felt like in a kid’s movie, where you just know everyone will be fine in the end. I’m not saying I was right about this but while reading, I definitely wasn’t worried about Jane, Katherine, or Red Jack.

I probably won’t jump on the sequel the moment it comes out, but I can definitely see myself reading more of Justina Ireland’s books. Especially if they’re told by Jane McKeene.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Quite good

Beauty with little substance: Dhonielle Clayton- The Belles

So far, my Hugo Awards reading has brought me a lot of joy. This is the first book (nominated for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel) that I’m not overly excited about. It was an entertaining book, overall, but there were a lot of things that simply didn’t work. At this point – having read three of the nominated 6 YA books – it’s at the bottom of my list.

THE BELLES
by Dhonielle Clayton

Published by: Disney Press, 2018
eBook: 448 pages
Series: The Belles #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty after the world began.

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

This was a strange reading experience. One the one hand, I have a number of problems with this book, the world-building, the set-up, the “twists”, and the characters. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I was well entertained. The only reason I picked this up is because it is currently nominated for a Lodestar Award (Not-a-Hugo) and I want to support this new-ish Hugo category as well as make a well-informed decision on how to vote.

The story is set in an alternate (or maybe future?) Orléans, ruled by queens officially, but really ruled by beauty. The underlying myth of this world is that some goddess or other did something stupid so now almost all people are born ugly. That means, they have pale grey skin and red eyes. The only exception are the Belles, girls not only gifted with otherworldy beauty, but also with magical blood that gives them the ability to turn others beautiful. Camille grows up as all Belles do. Learning how to use her magic, learning the rules of beauty – symmetry, colors that go well together, flattering clothing, etc. etc. She and her sisters compete in a competition to become the Favorite, the Belle who lives and works at the royal court.

Here, the first problems with world-building arose. The Belles are kept extremely secluded, aren’t allowed reading material that isn’t approved by their care takers, and generally don’t know anything about their world that doesn’t seem to come out of a Youtube make-up tutorial. I was willing to suspend my disbelief enough to say that these girls don’t know anything else, so of course they don’t question this way of life. But what about the rest of the world? The Queen is the official ruler of Orléans, but what exactly does she do? There are not even throwaway remarks about how the country works. I don’t need an academic paper on Orléan’s economy or social structure but if I’m put into a secondary world by an author, I’d like some idea of how it works. Alas, no such luck. The focus remains firmly on Camille and her beauty work.

This beauty work consists in taking appointments for the aristocracy and royalty, making them pretty with the Belles’ magic. Changing hair colors, getting rid of wrinkles, making a nose smaller, breasts bigger, hips wider… you get the idea. That is Camille’s job. It’s the exact same job all of her sisters have, regardless of their status (only one can be the Favorite, after all). While the descriptions of Camille’s beauty work were engaging and fun to read, I kept asking myself again and again what the point was. The entire story takes place within the confines of the palace or places only rich people can go, so everyone is beautiful. The poor can’t afford beauty work, so people’s looks are a clear status symbol. But nobody ever mentions living conditions, where people’s food comes from or what their jobs are.

As for the plot, it was definitely fun to read, but I saw the twists from miles away. The Belles’ secret is obvious very early on in the story and the other mystery becomes incredibly clear as you read along. So the moments that were probably meant to shock me fell flat. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some shocking scenes in this book – beauty work is painful for the person receiving it, and the more you change, the more it hurts. There were moments that made me cringe because while I thought the plot was weak, the writing is actually pretty good.

The ending makes clear that this was always meant to be the first book in a series. While some plot strings are resolved in a way, many others are left open. I don’t know if Dhonielle Clayton plans to open up this world in the second book or if the world-building as such will get better but I probably won’t continue this series. Camille was a nice character to follow but I wasn’t all that interested in the idea of the novel to begin with. Now that the execution of it didn’t impress me, I see no reason to read the second book.

MY RATING: 6/10

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

I’ve been slacking in two departments this year. One is science fiction novels, as I’ve been leaning heavily on the fantasy side, and the other is older SFF. Last year, reading one newer book and one older one was a very rewarding experience for me. But as new releases and award ballots come floating in, it’s easy to forget the classics. Thanks to the Sword & Laser Podcast, however, I finally picked up this Bradbury book and – again – was positively surprised at how much I liked it.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
by Ray Bradbury

Published by: Doubleday, 1950
Ebook: 263 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

The strange and wonderful tale of man’s experiences on Mars, filled with intense images and astonishing visions. Now part of the Voyager Classics collection.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.
But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.

This story of humanity colonizing Mars is presented as a fix-up novel, a collection of connected short stories, that each show different aspects of the migration to Mars, starting from the very first efforts to even reach Mars, the first settlements there, dealing with the locals, and questioning the meaning of humanity and life itself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Fix-up novels are usually not my thing because I like to get to know a set of characters and then follow them for a while. Here, you meet a character and they’re gone by the next story. Sure, some are mentioned later on, but you only really follow a character for as long as their story lasts. But The Martian Chronicles worked for me. I loved that it started with the Martians, the aliens living on the Red Planet before humans arrived in their shiny metal rockets and started messing shit up.

The book goes along chronologically, beginning with the first few (failed) missions to Mars. But they were intriguing in how they failed. While the people on Earth may believe the rockets never even arrived, us readers get to find out that they did arrive, but things weren’t as simple as putting a flag in the ground and building a house. Humanity’s arrival also has other, unforseen, consequences for the local population – and that’s not even considering that humans plan to do what they’ve always done and just take someone else’s land for their own and drive away the people who lived their before…

As colonization progresses and more and more people come to live on Mars, more and more questions arise about history. We meet characters who feel great concern at what has happened on Mars, who look at the ruins of Martian buildings with awe. Then there are others who want to make a fortune and build a completely new life for themseves on this new planet. And let’s not forget the threat of war down on Earth. Remembering this book was published in 1950 helps a lot in putting things into perspective and gives an interesting glimpse into the issues and fears of that time.

And while we’re on the subject of the book being “of its time”, there is a highly controversial story included here – “Way in the Middle of the Air” – that has been edited out of some edition (or so I hear). The story deals with an unabashed racist, a despicable piece of human garbage, as he watches pretty much all the black people from his home town pack up their stuff and decide to leave for Mars. While others have called the story racist, I felt that Bradbury was always clearly on the side of the black characters and hated his protagonist as much as I did. I found the story hard to read (not only because of the frequent use of the n-word), but I didn’t think the story as such was racist. Only the shit-for-brains protagonist was and although worse things could and maybe should have happened to him, the story doesn’t exactly end well for him.

There were some things about this book that felt at the same time silly and very Golden Age of Science Fiction. The fact that astronauts landing on Mars can simply walk around without space suits, breathe the air and experience no difference in gravity – it was weird, at first, but with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, I got used to it. I would have liked to read more chapters from the Martian’s point of view or at least featuring them in a more prominent way, and I definitely would have liked more (or even a single) female characters who were more than just that important guy’s wife or somebody’s mother – women with jobs, women with hopes and dreams for this new life in Mars… you get the idea.

But again, considering this book as a product of its time, and judging simply on reading enjoyment, I quite liked. My foray into older SFF has once again been rewarded.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Hook’s Point of View: Brianna R. Shrum – Never Never

As someone who loves retellings and adores Peter Pan, it was time to try a new-to-me author who tackled the classic story of the boy who would never grow up. I haven’t read a lot of retellings from the point of view of the villain, but because Hook is enigmatic and wonderful and full of layers, I was quite curious to see how Shrum would tell his story.

NEVER NEVER
by Brianna R. Shrum

Published by: Spencer Hill Press, 2015
Paperback: 356 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: All children, except one, wish to stay young.

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up. When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child – at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children’s dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up. But grow up he does. And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn’t about Peter Pan; it’s about the boy whose life he stole. It’s about a man in a world that hates men. It’s about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan. Except one.

We all know Hook, the infamous pirate captain who lost his right hand to Peter Pan, who in turn fed it to the ever-ticking crocodile. We know Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys, the splendors of Neverland and the magic of fairy dust. But when this story begins, James Hook is a regular boy living in London, dreaming of being a famous pirate captain, but quite focused on making his father proud and showing good form. Getting into a good school, excelling at his tasks, putting serious effort into Growing Up. Until he meets Pan in Kensington Gardens one day…

Peter swiftly spirits Hook away to Neverland where he lives as a Lost Boy for a while. Although James is sceptical from the very beginning of Peter’s games and eating nothing but make-believe food, he goes along with it because he senses the darkness in Pan, the danger that lies in wait for him should he break Peter’s cardinal rule: Never Grow Up!

I thought Shrum’s choice to do a few time jumps was a great way to tell the story. James inevitably does grow up a bit because he simply isn’t the type to stay a boy forever, and of course he ends up captaining his very own pirate vessel. He also feels drawn to Tiger Lily, at first a little girl but soon a young woman who may develop more adult feelings as well.

While the writing is engaging throughout the novel, there is little to no plot for at least two thirds of it. Hook mostly struggles with the fact that he doesn’t know how to leave Neverland without Pan – and Pan refuses to help Hook in any way because, well, he’s growing up. The idea of Pan being anything but innocent is not new, so I didn’t find this fact to be very interesting. It’s clear that Peter has a dark side  (Peter is mostly dark side, if you ask me) so that isn’t enough to keep me interested as a reader. And Hook’s pain at realizing he may never see his family again because he is stuck in Neverland was not enough to keep me interested for long.

For quite some time, Hook does pretty much nothing. There are many moments where it is shown that he has responsibilities as a captain, that he should command his people, that they should do something. And they do a little. Some ransacking here, some conquering of other pirate ships there, a quick stop at a nearby port of Neverland… but honestly, it never becomes clear what these pirates do all day. And I wouldn’t have minded so much because that’s just a fact of Neverland – stuff doesn’t happen unless Peter is there – but  the author specifically made Starkey, Hook’s first mate, remind Hook of his duties all the time. When the pirates still didn’t really do much and Hook didn’t interact with them a lot, it began to bother me.

Eventually, the plot does get going and a romance evolves. I thought it was quite nicely done, especially with the tone of the novel shifting from childlike fairy tale to a more grown-up style. Both James and Tiger Lily felt like surprisingly mature people, considering they are still quite young and don’t have any experience other than life in Neverland – which is not exactly the place you look to for advice on how to be a grown-up. But I liked both of them as characters, even though Hook was dreadfully inactive after his first attempts at escaping Neverland were thwarted.

I was surprised at how little this story overlaps with the original Peter Pan. Sure, all the characters are there and even Wendy and her brothers show up at the end, but other than that, there aren’t any recognizable events from Hook’s point of view. It’s a different story that only melds with the original Peter Pan at the very end. The ending in general was completely different from the rest of the book. Not only does the author rush through events at high speed, but certain characters also change personality really quickly. Tiger Lily, that amazing girl with a mind of her own, suddenly does a 180 and turns from a clever young woman into an intolerably stupid girl. Hook’s development into the villain we all know is more gradual and therefore more believable.

All things considered, this was an okay retelling with a lot of focus on character rather than plot. Few elements of the original Peter Pan are there, but I did like the one scene that was taken from the book and twisted to fit this version of events. Not my favorite retelling, not groundbreaking in any way, but not a bad book.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Susan Dennard – Sightwitch

And I’m back with more Witchlands. The next instalment in the series just came out, so I didn’t want to read it right away (makes the wait for the next book shorter). But thankfully, there is this prequel-novella (200 pages still counts as a novella?) about side-character Ryber.

SIGHTWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor Teen, 2018
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2.5
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: You don’t remember me, do you, Kullen?

Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
Set a year before TruthwitchSightwitch is a companion novella that also serves as a set up to Bloodwitch, as well as an expansion of the Witchlands world.

Although this is technically a prequel (#0.5 of the Witchlands, if you will), and you can read it without having read any of the other books in the series, I think it is better to read it after Windwitch. Certain things that happen in this novella could spoil the second book otherwise. So, if you’ve read the first two Witchlands novels, you have already met Ryber Fortiza on Prince Merik’s crew and you know she and Merik’s Threadbrother Kullen are together.

Here, we meet a much younger Ryber during her time with the Sightwitches, waiting to be summoned herself and gain the power of Sight – remembering everything immediately, seeing the future, preserving memories from the dead. Year after year, young Sightwitch Sisters are summoned into the mountain to converse with the Goddess Sirmaya. Except Ryber. Yet she doesn’t give up, she follows every rule and is a model student, hoping that her devotion will get her summoned eventually.

It’s a great set-up for a story and one that made me sympathise with Ryber immediately. Nobody likes being the one left behind. And as Ryber watches her friends, especially her Threadsister Tanzi, summoned, with herself  still left Sightless, she becomes more and more desperate. When all Sightwitch Sisters are summoned, leaving Ryber completely alone, she knows that following the rules isn’t an option anymore. If she doesn’t take matters into her own hands, none of the Sightwitches might ever return. An no rulebook is worth that!

It was really nice that this shorter book finally explained the magic in a bit more detail. Sure, we focus on Sightwitches here, completely ignoring all the other magic out there, but the system seemed beautifully thought out and even based on a sort of common mythology. I guess that mythology and ancient history will be quite important for the series in general. We learn how people in the Witchlands came to possess magic in the first place and the events that led to this change. I found all of that incredibly interesting, not just because it’s a great story in itself but also because it gives the world so much more depth than it had with just the two main books in the series.

But this book isn’t only about Ryber and her journey into the mountain to save the other Sightsisters. We jump back in time to another Sightwitch’s life – in fact, we jump straight  into Eridysi’s journals and learn what was going on a thousand years before Ryber. I also really liked Eridysi as a character and found her story almost more intriguing than Ryber’s. But – you may have guessed – the two stories aren’t just there by happenstance, they do connect in the end.

Ryber’s trip into the mountain was probably the most annoying part of the book. She meets Kullen (no spoiler, it’s literally on the first page) and while they don’t exactly hit it off, they form an alliance of sorts to try and get out of the crazy mountain alive. Why crazy, you ask? Well, there’s all sorts of monster and weird rooms and other stuff that wants to kill you down there. Fun to read, for sure, but I was way more interested in the background stories. Fleshing out the story of the Paladins and how they died many, many years ago. How magic came to the Witchlands, what kind of doors Eridysi was trying to build and whether she ever succeeded.

In the end, things connect really well, and many questions were answered. Although even more appeared, especially when it comes to Kullen and certain events from Windwitch. This book also doesn’t continue seamlessly into Truthwitch so I’m left wanting to know how Ryber got from the end of this book to where she is when we first meet her on Merik’s ship. But all things considered, this was a nice shorter trip into the Witchlands and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the series. Sometimes, you can leave out the bonus novellas or short stories that come with book series, but this one just feels important to the overall world.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Susan Dennard – Windwitch

After the happy surprise that was Truthwitch, I decided to continue Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series and see where she takes her characters and what else I can learn about this world. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things wrong with this sequel, but not enough to deter me completely from the series. I have high hopes for the next instalment and I’m already reading the (so far really great) prequel Sightwitch.

WINDWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  Blood on the floor.

Sometimes our enemies are also our only allies…
After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.
When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?
After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

Well, if ever there was a book that started with a bang, this is it! When I started reading, I thought for a little while that I had skipped a volume or missed a chapter because boy, stuff goes down right away! Prince Merik escaped from his exploding ship and now lives in hiding, scarred, hurt, and somewhat depressed at the state of his home country and himself. He misses his Threadbrother, he has no plan on what to do next, and he can’t stop thinking about Safiya fon Hasstrel…

Meanwhile, Safi and Iseult – separated as per the end of book one – don’t have it much easier. Iseult desperately tries to find Safi again and stumbles across Bloodwitch Aeduan – my (and probably most other readers’) favorite character. Safi starts out much like Merik, with a shipwreck and on the run. So the stakes are high right from the start, there is lots of interesting conflict  and character development to come, and I sank into this book smiling smugly, knowing I had chosen wisely.

And to be fair, the book does deliver a lot of these early promises. But it also has a lot of problems. Let’s start with the good stuff. I enjoyed, more than anything else, Iseult’s character development, the things that are revealed in her storyline, and above all her relationship with Aeduan. These two are thrown together by fate and continue their journey side by side for a while to mutual benefit. But as you can imagine, a sort of friendship does form, although one expressed through grunts and constantly saving each others lives rather than through actual spoken words. I loved every second of Iseult and Aeduan, especially because we get to read both their POVs and see how they’re both unsure they can trust the other person but they also both want the other person to stay alive.

Merik’s storyline was also not bad, although it had major parts that were too drawn out and quite frankly boring. He returns to his home unrecognizably scarred and while he enjoys this new anonymity, he still wants to save his kingdom. We also finally get to know Merik’s sister, Vivia, and let’s just say, there is more to her than meets the eye. I should say more than Merik has led us to believe so far. Because we get to see this ruthless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry character through her own POV chapters, she feels much more three-dimensional, much more multi-layered and although I can’t say I liked her (at least not at first), there is no denying that she was interesting as hell to read about!

Safi’s story was actually the weakest of them all. There were more things I disliked about her story than things I liked. First of all was the fact that her and  Vaness get throwin into situations involving other nations, bands of pirates, weird magic-resistant guys, and yet more groups of people who we may have heard of before but I just found it all very confusing and had a difficult time keeping all the new characters and factions straight. There is not enough explanation, not enough time to understand the world-building properly to get into the whole “which faction is betraying with other faction” thing.
Even worse though was Safi’s fickleness when it comes to the romance. I really liked her tense relationship with Merik in the first book and I wanted these two to find each other again. But Safi wastes no time being attracted to other men. Of course I know this happens, particularly with a teenager like Safi, but I felt disappointed in her nonetheless.

The middle part of the book is a bit of a drag all-round, with quick POV changes but very little happening to push the plot forward in each of the story lines. I felt like Iseult and Aeduan walked around for ages without getting any further, I felt Merik hid in the shadows without any plan of what to do, just sulking around, and Safi and Vaness stumbled from one kind of capture into the next – all without moving anything truly forward. But the last third of the book made up for the middle slog.

What really, really bothered me, especially toward the end, was the extremely quick jumps between characters. As soon as I got into a scene, felt comfortable with one character’s story line again, something shocking happens and it’s over – we jump to the next character. And then the same thing happens over again. And again. And again. It’s thrilling, no doubt, reading nothing but cliffhangers for about a hundred pages, but it never allowed me to fully engage with any one character or their story because I was constantly being ripped out of it again. I think putting the individual character sequences together differently would have greatly improved the book. But hey, that’s just me.

Despite the annoying POV jumps, the ending was quite epic. There were several revelations that open the world up even more and give plenty of room for the sequels. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the parts of the world that have already been established, as well as about the magic, but if the author decided to keep that for the upcoming books, I’m okay with that. This may have been a very flawed book that would have benefited off some better editing, but I’m still invested in the Witchlands and its characters. I can’t wait to finish the prequel Sightwitch and then dive straight into the newly-released Bloodwitch. Because, come on, it has to be focused on Aeduan and Aeduan is the best!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – The Steel Prince

I’ve only recently  finished the Shades of Magic trilogy with mixed feelings. The third book was fun to read, but the conclusion felt rather underwhelming to me. There is no denying, however, that V. E. Schwab has created an intriguing world of parallel Londons that I’ll gladly return to every chance I get. Thanks to the publisher for this Graphic Novel ARC which let me dive back into Red London for a while and see what happened before Kell, Rhy and Lila.

SHADES OF MAGIC VOL. 1: The Steel Prince 
by V. E. Schwab and Andrea Olimpieri

Published by: Titan Comics, 2019
Paperback: 112 pages
Series: Shades of Magic #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once, there were four worlds instead of one, set side by side like sheets of paper.

Delve into the thrilling, epic tale of the young and arrogant prince Maxim Maresh, long before he became the king of Red London and adoptive father to Kell, the lead of A Darker Shade of Magic!
The youthful Maresh is sent to a violent and unmanageable port city on the Blood Coast of Verose, on strict orders from his father, King Nokil Maresh, to cut his military teeth in this lawless landscape.
There, he encounters an unruly band of soldiers, a lawless landscape, and the intoxicatingly deadly presence of the newly returned pirate queen, Arisa…
Collects Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1-4.

First of all, let  me tell you that if you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab, go do that now. I don’t think reading this graphic novel prequel will make much sense or really work for you  if you aren’t already familiar with the (wonderful!) world the author created in her novels. There is a whole magic system here that is not explained in the graphic novel, there are power structures that should also be understood to some degree before reading it. So with that important piece of information out of the way, let’s talk about the graphic novel.

I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a while now because the good ones manage to evoke as much emotion in the reader as a big fat novel can, all without much description but instead with pictures. That said, a good novel writer is not necessarily a good graphic novel writer because the two media are so different and you have to use different methods to get the story you want to tell across. While this was not a bad book, it was quite obvious that Schwab is more at home with prose. I enjoyed the story fine, but I just wanted a bit more. More of everything. More description, more world building, more character development, more magic, more intricate battles… It was all there to some degree but there was just never enough of it.

The story revolves around Maxim, Kell and Rhy’s father (or Kell’s adoptive father, if you want to be correct). In the novel trilogy, Maxim really got to shine in the third book, so I was eager to see what the king had been up to in his youth. The premise of the story is that the four Londons are separated, there are no Antari around, and the king is quite happy with this situation. Not so Maxim who is full of excitement and wants to save the world and make it better, but who is also impulsive and trusts too much in his own abilities.

Maxim was an intriguing character, especially compared to the older, wiser King Maxim we meet in the novels. He is easy to like because although he acts rashly sometimes, you know from the start that his heart is in the right place. The fact that he is amazing with his magic also doesn’t hurt.

Because Maxim’s father disapproves of his son’s efforts to find Antari magicians, he sends him away to Verose which – as you might expect – doesn’t go too smoothly. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but this is where Maxim meets Isra who faithful readers of Schwab’s books will recognise immediately. Seeing her former self was also a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the group dynamic between all the people Maxim meets. Naturally, there is an opponent that needs to be defeated and while I thought she was super cool as villains go, this was were the plot started losing me. The ending came way too quickly and felt sort of abrupt, particularly because the beginning took such care to introduce the world to the readers a bit and to show where Maxim is coming from.

Andrea Olimpieri’s art is beautiful, no doubt. I really liked how the characters were drawn but I had some problems with the action sequences and the magic. Arisa’s (the villain) magic looked absolutely stunning and managed to convey that sense of danger through art that I’m sure the characters felt whenever confronted with her. But the other types of magic didn’t really give me that sense of wonder that I want to feel when reading fantasy. The battle scenes – again, great ideas and great story telling as such – also suffered because of the medium chosen. You’d think any visual medium would be better suited for fast-paced action scenes than simple prose, but because comic books are comprised of still images, not moving ones, I think it’s incredibly hard to make fight scenes thrilling in them. For me, it didn’t really work in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I fell into it the way I did with A Darker Shade of Magic, but it was time well spent. The ending rounds up the story nicely (if too quickly) but definitely leaves room for more of Maxim’s adventures. Even if this wasn’t one of my favorite graphic novels, I’ll probably check out whatever comes next because it’s a lovely world to escape to and there are so many details yet to explore. Maybe, if Schwab continues writing these, we’ll get to see Rhy’s birth and how Kell came into their lives. Here’s to hoping!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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