Slow Start, Lovely Ending: Alix E. Harrow – A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow is one of thos author’s whose shopping list I would pick up without a second thought. Her Fractured Fables series hit a sweet spot for me, although it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, what with its many pop culture references and easygoing (maybe a bit too simple) plot. She has clearly taken feedback for this second volume but although I liked it generally, it wasn’t as great as A Spindle Splintered.

A MIRROR MENDED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 14th July 2022
eBook: 176 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one-forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding – I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

Zinnia Gray has been verse-hopping for a while and seen pretty much every version of Sleeping Beauty you can think of. Futurisitci sci-fi – check. Steampunk – check. Gender-flipped – check. All possible variations of LGBTQIA+ pairings – check. One gets the feeling Zinnia is getting a little bit bored with living through the same storybeats over and over again, albeit in slight variations. Sure, helping other sleeping beauties break out of their story, forge their own path, and defy fairy tale norms is fun, but how long does that novelty last, really?
There’s also something that happened between Zinnia and her best friend Charm which has led to them not speaking for six months! It’s clearly weighing on Zinnia, but she’d rather jump around fairy tales than face her real-world problems, especially when she catches a glimpse of a different tale, one involving a mirror and an apple, and promptly gets sucked in to it.

So in this volume, Zinnia finds herself in Snow White, (accidentally) summoned by none other than the Evil Queen. Whom Zinnia has an immediate crush on. Unfortunately, that part bothered me a lot because, sure, you can feel lust for someone you’ve only seen once, but this book is about something a little more growing between these two women and I was sad that it felt a little like insta-love and yet, at the same time, like only a fling. Eva – as the Evil Queen will be named soon – is a super intriguing character, in that she is pretty evil, yeah, but as with so many villain origin stories or falling in love with the villain tales, we get to see a different version of the well-known fariy tale and it puts Eva’s action into perspective. Killing your stepdauhter is still not the greatest pastime, mind you, but Eva’s reasoning is at least somewhat understandable here. She also undergoes a lovely bit of character growth which made me like her more than Zinnia in this book.

The plot is pretty weak, I’m sad to say. It starts with the fact that there’s almost no stakes to begin with. The only hook that’s there from the start is the mysterious fight between Zinnia and Charm and we only learn more details about that much later in the novella. The first half of it was – and I’m sorry to have to use that word – boring. Zinnia and Evil Queen meet, have some rather predictable chat, threatening each other and so on, and only later do they actually stumble into their own adventure. The second half of the novella is where things get interesting. There’s some more world-hopping, jumping around Snow White this time, dangerous situations and difficult decisions to make. As lackluster as I found the beginning, the later bits made up for a lot of it.

That fight between Zinnia and Charm also gets adressed and while I’m not going to spoil anything here, it was about something that will have consequences for later books in this series – if it is meant to continue, that is. The ending was well-rounded but gave the novella a highly episodic feel and thus detracted a bit from the relationship between Eva and Zinnia. I don’t know if the series will go on, and if yes, how exactly that might look after the things we’ve learned in A Mirror Mended. I’d like more adventures through differente fairy tales but I was already missing the wit and clever references and especially the spark that made the first book so exciting.

But if Alix Harrow decides to write more, I will absolutely read more of her fractured fables. Even if they’re “only” good, they are still a great addition to any fairy tale lover’s library. If you’re looking for easy to digest diverse takes on fairy tales, you’ll be quite happy with these novellas.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Nothing New At The Scholomance: Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate

Publisher-generated hype can be very detrimental to a book’s success, especially when it builds up the wrong expectations. A generally very good book can end up disappointing its readers, simply because they were led to believe that it would tell a different kind of story. In the case of the Scholomance, this curse follows Novik even to her second book, which is fun to read but has very little to offer in terms of what was promised.

THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2021
ebook:
389 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 26 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Keep far away from Orion Lake.

The specter of graduation looms large as Naomi Novik’s trilogy continues in the sequel to A Deadly Education.

In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant.
Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive.
Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely.
But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do.

I was skeptical from the beginning when I started reading Naomi Novik’s first Scholomance book but reviews had warned me of the info-dumping beginning, unlikable protagonist, and cultural insensitivities. I ended up really enjoying the first book but only once Novik started showing us the dangers of the school first-hand and put the characters in truly dangerous situations. I honestly didn’t feel like the information we got in the first book was “dumped” so much as delivered by El but the focus of the book was never pure action.

Now this second book had it a bit harder. With the Scholomance set up (although many, many parts of it make no sense at all and I still don’t understand how this world is supposed to work), the stakes needed to be repositioned. El and her friends are in their final year with graduation looming above everyone’s head like a big sword dripping blood. El’s former plan – make it out of the Scholomance alive and don’t become an evil Maleficer in the process – has changed a lot. Now she intends to be a Big Damn Hero and save everyone.

The bulk of the book is – yet again – not school life, lessons, not even really exciting fights against monsters, but rather lots of talk and politics and making alliances. Now I personally actually like that kind of stuff, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected from this “adult magic school series”. The politicking and planning and making plans on how to graduate were fun to read and I mostly looked forward to getting back to the book whenever I took a break. But it felt like a broken promise, nonetheless.

I had also hoped that the world building and magic system would be described in more detail in this book, that we’d learn more things about how this secret magic society works. Rudimentary information would have sufficed, to be honest, because I still don’t understand how everyday life outside the Scholomance works for witches and wizards.
We got some insight into how the school works and also about what drives the mals but I wouldn’t say that I have a good idea of the world this series takes place in, nor its magical society. Originally, I thought thi would be a longer series (yes, I admit, that assumption was influenced by that most famous wizard boy and his seven book series) but the trilogy will be concluded with The Golden Enclaves, which comes out this September. So it’s not like there’s a lot of pages left to do some proper world building. And if this is all we get, I am far from impressed!

As fun as the plot of the book was to read, the characters were treated with even less love than in the first novel. I’m not going to comment on the diversity aspect much, other than that I enjoy reading about well-written diverse characters, but no matter their heritage, skin color, cultural background, or native language, the side characters all remained incredibly pale (no pun intended). Only at the end of the book do we get a little bit more from a couple of side characters than just them existing alongside El. Even Orion, the main love interest, feels like a parody of himself. He, too, only gets to be a proper person when the book is almost over and El finally talks to him like she’s taking him seriously, like he’s a full human being with his own hopes and dreams.

Novik has apparently also lost her ability to write good romantic scenes. Not one single kiss made me feel anything at all and the sex scene was just meh from beginning to end. As this is only a small part of the novel, normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but I have swooned over Novik’s romantic scenes in Uprooted and Spinning Silver and was thus expecting her to keep up that level of quality, if not raise it.
El’s interactions with Orion, although she clearly feels something for him, still read like she’s always annoyed with him. If she’s in love with him, she’s treating him terribly and I don’t appreciate how she is constantly making hurtful comments, acting like he’s beneath her, or like he’s an idiot. If she’s not in love with him, why the hell play with his feelings like that? Either way, it makes me dislike El on a whole new level, no matter how many lives she intends to save. If that’s how she treats her closest friends/potential boyfriend, then I’d rather not know her at all…

The ending wasn’t really surprising. Many reviews warned of the “shocking cliffhanger” but really, I found it quite obvious what was going to happen, at least after a certain point in the novel that offered such on-the-nose foreshadowing it was hard to miss. Had I been more invested in the characters and their relationships, it still might have shocked me but as Novik kept them all at arm’s lenght, I didn’t much care either way. Plus, I’m sure the next novel is going to fix everything and wrap things up extra tidily.

To sum up my feelings: I enjoyed the reading (or rather: listening) experience but it didn’t offer anything new in terms of worldbuilding or character development, so I don’t see how this instalment helps the series progress in any meaningful way. I am also still not convinced that this is a YA novel/series. If anything, this second book has less crossover appeal than the first. As for my Lodestar ballot, despite me having enjoyed the book, I will once again leave it off completely as, in my opinion, it shouldn’t win an award in a category it does not belong in.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Sci-Fi Disguised as Fantasy: Adrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Rade

The (to me) most unexpected entry on theis year’s Hugo Award Best Novella Finalists list was this book by prolific and well-loved author Adrian Tchaikovsky. I had never read anything by him, atlhough I’ve heart plenty of recommendations for his Shadows of the Apt series as well as the newer Children of Time Duology, which I’m very much looking forward to. My high expectations weren’t met with this novella but I also didn’t dislike it.

ELDER RACE
by Adrian Tchakovsky

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 204 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

This is one of those neat books that are really science fiction but, to some of its characters, work like a fantasy novel. The story is told through dual perspectives, that of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the headstrong fourth princess of Lannesite, and Nyr Illim Tevitch, a human anthropoligist who spends most of his time in a sort of cryo-sleep, only waking up to write down whatever cultural changes of note the inhabitants have to offer for his reasearch. His colleagues have long left the planet, leaving him all alone to complete this mission of knowledge. When a “demon” is threatening some villages on the planet, Lynesse takes matters into her own hand and decides to climb up the mountain to the tower of the Elder Nyrgoth and ask for his help. As he has once helped her ancestor in a battle against an evil sorcerer many years ago…

The idea behind this set-up is not new, by any means, but that doesn’t have to automatically make this a boring story. In fact, Tchaikovsky offers plenty of cool aspects that make reading this worthwhile. My favorite part was probably the DCS – Dissociative Cognition System – which is built into Nyr (who has many augments, not least amon them a pair of horns!) and which lets him block all emotions in order to make the most rational decision for whatever situation he is in. Except those emotions don’t evaporate, he can only hold them back for a while, but needs to eventually let them out. As you can imagine, collecting a bunch of (usually negative) feelings, only to feel them all at once, is not very pleasant. Especially considering how incredibly depressed Nyr is and how little purpose he sees in this strange half-life he leads.

In order for there to be a story at all, he of course agrees to accompany Lyn and her companion Esha, to confront this “demon” of hers, fully suspecting either a natural disease or some old tech that was left over from when humans colonized the planet in the first place. He is ignoring the Prime Directive (it has a different name here) because, hey, if he’s the loneliest anthropoligst in the world, why not also be the worst? And so off they go, stopping in this village or that, collecting info on the demon, and going to kill it once and for all.

What didn’t work for me, or rather what I found surprising and disappointing alike, was the shallow characterization. Except for Nyr, who gets a personality (albeit a sad and depressed one), there wasn’t any effort put into anyone else’s character. Lyn’s one characteristic is that she has defied her mother in order to go on this quest and that’s it. Esha is the wise-ish companion but we never get to know her. And later on, another man joins the cast, who at least gets an interesting backstory but no more.

The same lack of focus can be found in the world buliding for the “fantasy” side of this story. Lannesite could have been described a little more, or any part of this world really, in order to make us care about what happens to its people. The way it is, it’s just generic fantasy land without any depth or lore or cool mythology. There are a few moments where Nyr explains something, telling the locals how it’s not magic, but science, and because of language barriers and translation problems, all they hear is “magic” and “sorcery” after all. I found that part really neat but it doesn’t make up for the lack of proper wold building. The sci-fi half of the novel fared much better, with a little info on how Nyr came to be here, what his job was meant to be, and what happened to Earth and us humans. I have no gripes there, except that it makes the fantasy part feel all the more like an unloved stepchild.

A question of taste, surely, but another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the writing style. Whether we were in Lyn or Nyr’s narrative, apart from the change in POV (Lyn is third person, Nyr first person), there wasn’t much difference in how events were described. Sure, Nyr uses words that Lyn doesn’t know, such as “anthropoligist” or “drone” but I think the contrast between the sci-fi and the fantasy sides of this tale should have been more visible, also in the writing. I never felt like the story was truly flowing, although I can’t put my finger on why. The style and I just didn’t gel.

The plot is, unfortunately, quite thin. Very little happens and despite a pretty cool ending, most of it was predictable. The book’s strongest aspect is surely the character of Nyr, how he handles his complicated emotions, the loneliness, the lack of purpose, the not knowing of what’s to come. Otherwise, there wasn’t much here to keep my interest and I’ll probably have forgotten most of this story in a copule of weeks. But I also didn’t actively dislike it. It was fine.
I certainly hope Tchaikovsky’s novel-length works do better in terms of characters (especailly female ones, come on!) and world building.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Many Faces of Powerful Women: Tasha Suri – The Jasmine Throne

This review comes with a warning that my brain wasn’t up to its usual standards when I read this book. I listened to the audiobook, which I liked, but I had a hard time concentrating, needed to re-listen to chapters a lot and I may have fallen asleep more often than not (due to my pregnancy, not because the book is boring!). I am aware that, had I read this at a different time, I might have enjoyed it much more, so take my rating and impressions with a grain of salt. I’m still recommending this book overall but it wasn’t the instant hit I was hoping for.

THE JASMINE THRONE
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2021
Hardcover:
576 pages
Audiobook:
19 hours 43 minutes
Series:
Burning Kingdoms #1
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.

Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess’s traitor brother.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.

But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire

This was one of those fantasy books that I appreciate for what it’s doing without ever really having built up an emotional connection to the story or the characters. Like watching events unfold from afar and being intrigued by them, but not feeling like I’m part of things. Until I give this a re-read, I’ll never know if that’s just a result of pregnancy brain or if I just didn’t vibe with this particular book but the listening experience was rewarding, nonetheless.

We follow a cast of characters, although two of them more closely than others, who live in a recently conquered place called Ahiranya. The Parijati Empire has taken over the land and done what Empires usually do – oppress the people, destroy and/or deny their culture, and forbid their religion. In this particular case, that meant killing all the Temple Children and Elders, the ones who could wield magic considered wrong in the eyes of the evil emperor. And the emperor is pretty straight forwardly evil. I mean, who sends their own sister to burn on a pyre and expects her to climb up there of her own free will (because honor or whatever) and when she doesn’t comply sends her into exile where she is to be slowly poisoned and kept in total isolation from other humans? That’s right, Emperor Chandra does.
I normally don’t like over the top evil villains and this one didn’t exactly show a lot of nuance, but as there are enough other characters to keep things interesting, I will forgive Tasha Suri the crazy emperor.

Much more interesting and complex are the two main female characters. First of all, the Emperor’s sister who refused to be burned alive (I know, how dare she, right?) and a young handmaiden named Priya who is happy to remain an unseen servant because it helps her keep her big secret. But Priya stumbles into the job of becoming Princess Malini’s servant and thus starts a tale not only of attraction and later romance, but also of accepting her own past and identity. And the same goes for Malini. They are very, very different people, not only because of their different cultures and social standing or even shades of skin color. But also in terms of moral code, one of them is definitely more inclined to sacrifice a few things (or people?) to reach her goals than the other. And even though I didn’t particularly feel the romance between them, I do so appreciate multi-layered characters! Especially female characters who get to be all sorts of protagonists. They don’t have to be the perfectly good, ultimately feminine, can-do-no-wrong kind of women, they just get to be people. Who have flaws and make stupid decisions sometimes and regret their words and save each other and have desires and dreams… you get the point.

Funnily enough, my favorite character was one that doesn’t even get that many viewpoint chapters. The Palace where Priya works before she becomes Malini’s maid, is run by a Regent who, in turn, is married to a woman named Bhumika. And Bhumika is that rare character that first appears as one thing and then turns out to be way more than we expected. I don’t want to give anything away here but I whooped out loud at a certain scene that had to do with her and I generally found her to be the coolest character in the book. That’ll teach me to underestimate side characters!

There are many more characters, some of whom are more important than others, some who appear more often than others, and all of them were interesting and believable in their own right. There’s Priya’s brother Ashok, the young orphan boy Rukh whom she helped get work at the Palace, a man named Rao who wants to save Princess Malini, and a few others that would get me into spoiler territory.

I haven’t even mentioned all the other layers this book has to offer and maybe it was because of those many layers that I had such a hard time concentrating. Because we have this whole cultural and magical past to figure out alongside Priya, we have characters’ shared histories to unravel, we have a magic system that’s pretty cool but also demans dangerous things from its followers, and – just as a side note – we have an emperor to overthrow if we want the world to become a better place. So there is plenty to discover between the covers of this book and I think it’s a rich addition to non-Western fantasy with its Indian-inspired setting.

I wish I had managed to let myself fall into this world a bit more deeply. The beginning, during which I could still concentrate much better, was quite atmospheric. I hope to re-read this when the second book of the trilogy comes out later this year. It will be called The Oleander Sword and is graced with another gorgeous cover! You could technically stop reading the series after the first book because although certain plot strings remain unresolved, the most pressing ones are well-rounded and lead to a more or less satisfying ending. The book could stand on its own is what I’m saying. But as there is much more of this world to see and certain things I hope to still happen with certain character pairings, I will continue reading the trilogy and see how Tasha Suri keeps growing in talent with every book.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Not Quite There Yet: Holly Black – Tithe

I am finally catching up on some older works by authors I have come to love in the last few years, and among them is Holly Black. Her debut YA novel subtitled “A modern Faerie Tale” didn’t sound like my thing and several anti-buzz words (I’m calling them that now) made me avoid this series. But Holly Black’s other books intrigued me enough to give this one a try as well. With mixed results.

TITHE
by Holly Black

Published: Simon & Schuster, 2002
eBook:
310 pages
Series:
Modern Faerie Tales #1
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Kaye took another dragon her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle.

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band, until an ominous attack forces them back to her childhood home.

To the place where she used to see Faeries.

They’re still there. But Kaye’s not a child anymore and this time she’s dragged into the thick of their dangerous, frightening world. A realm where black horses dwell beneath the sea, desperate to drown you . . . where the sinister Thistlewitch divines dark futures . . . and where beautiful faerie knights are driven to perform acts of brutal depravity for the love of their uncaring queens.

Once there, Kaye finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could end in her death . . . 

It’s such an interesting experience to read an author’s work not as it is being published but in a mixed up order, starting with newer books and then going back through their backlist. In this case, I was both surprised and impressed with how much Holly Black’s writing has improved over the course of her career. My first read of hers was The Coldest Girl in Coldtown which I liked well enough, then I dove into the Folk of the Air trilogy and that one (the middle book, specifically) totally gripped me. As her Modern Faerie Tales were Mythopoeic Award finalists, I thought I would definitely love them. And I didn’t dislike Tithe but I also couldn’t help but see how very, very clumsy a book it is and how the writing is so below the standards I was used to from Holly Black.

Kaye is a super cool, weird teenager who lives with her musician mom, hasn’t been to highschool in years and used to have fairy friends when she was younger. Through circumstances, she and her mom return to their former home and move in with grandma for a while (just until they get back on their feet) which means a reunion with former friends – the human kind – for Kaye and of course an adventure for us to follow.

The first thing I noticed with this book and its biggest flaw in my opinion is that scenes aren’t set properly and everything happens way too fast. And by that I don’t mean what we usually talk about when using the word “pacing” – it’s more than that. It’s that life-shattering events happen over the course of three lines! And that goes for many scenes that could have been great and impactful, like when someone kisses someone for the first time or when characters are in danger. It makes the book a super fast read but I also felt overwhelmed a lot of times, like I’d missed a page or something.
Add to that the fact that Kaye “lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding” a whopping three times in this rather short novel and it just goes to show that Holly Black was still a less experienced author then. Objectively speaking, this isn’t a well-written book.

BUT here’s the thing. At no point, while reading Tithe, did I want to put the book down or stop reading. The whole one more chapter shtick took on a whole new level for me and I race through this book in record time. Because despite its clumsy writing, lack of focus, and sentence-level pacing issues, there is that spark, that little bit of writing magic that draws me in.
Seriously, the world building is mostly basic faerie lore (Seelie vs. Unseelie, kelpies, pixies, etc.), the romance is just Kaye pining over a hot dude who likes her for reasons that are not further explained, but there’s something there anyway. I probably shouldn’t have but I enjoyed the hell out of this book!

This is the kind of book I recommend to people in a slump. It may not be great literature, not even particularly great writing (although we know the author has come miles since then!), but it’s light and fun and has some nice kissing in it. And it’s a fast read so you get the satisfaction of having finished a book again when things have been slumpy.
So even though the betrayal of year-long friendships is handled on half a page, the death of a character happens almost as a side note, and the characters don’t have a lot of depth, I will continue reading the rest of the series. Because who doesn’t like fun?

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good (for some reason)

Not the Best Stormlight Book But That Doesn’t Say Much: Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War

I have to put this right at the beginning: When I say this wasn’t my favorite Stormlight book but, in fact, my least favorite volume so far, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book in general. Brandon Sanderso has a gift and his very worst stories are still better than a lot of what else is out there. So now that that’s out, we can talk about why I wasn’t as into this book as I was into the other three.

RHYTHM OF WAR
by Brandon Sanderson

Published: Tor, 2020
Hardback:
1232 pages
Audiobook:
45 hours
Series:
The Stormlight Archive #4
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums.

After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage, and the threat of a betrayal by Dalinar’s crafty ally Taravangian looms over every strategic move.

Now, as new technological discoveries by Navani Kholin’s scholars begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure.

As with many sprawling epic fantasy series, it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about the newest one without spiling events of the previous volumes. There will be no spoilers of Rhythm of War here, but there may very well be spoilers for the three books that came before.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book but there were also an unusually high number of elements I didn’t, and the trademark Sanderson twist and emotional gutpunch didn’t really have that much of an impact this time. I think this book’s biggest problem is its lack of focus. Every Stormlight book so far followed all the main characters but one of them was the central character of that particular book. First it was Kaladin, then Shallan, then Dalinar. This time it is supposedly Venli, so we get some flashback chapters from her perspective, but they didn’t feel like they painted as much of a cohesive picture as the flashbacks in previous books did for their respective charcters. I didn’t feel like I learned great new thing about the character or like she grew because we examined her past together. Venli was pretty much as we know her and her growth is triggered by the present, not the past.

But that’s not the only focus and pacing problem. Juggling this many characters spread all over the map(s) hasn’t been a problem for Sanderson before, but this time, he struggled. Kaladin is still my favorite so I don’t mind spending hundreds of pages with him, even if he is going through depression and thus, not exactly fun to read. But the jumps between storylines often felt too long apart, some characters barely get mentioned at all.
Shallan and Adolin go to Shadesmar to try and convince the Honorspren to continue bonding with human Radiants. This is a pretty cool idea that delivered one of the best moments of the entire book at the end, but most of the time I kept forgetting that this plot was even still going on. Like we were introduced to their side quest early on, then followed Navani, Kaladin, and Venli for a loooong time, then quickly checked up on Adolin and Shallan and it felt like they hadn’t progressed at all while we’ve been battling Fused, creating new inventions with Stormlight and fabrials and examining our relationship with our own people and the war that is raging over Roshar. This gets better later in the book, but spreading some characters’ story out so thin with this much space between chapters made it feel like the B plot despite it being actually a really good story in its own right with huge implications for the world at large.

Now what I did like was one thing that everyone loved and one thing many people liked the least (I guess I’m weird). First of all, the way Sanderson desrcibes and examines mental health, or rather mental illness. Because Kaladin – and many others – suffers from what they call battle shock. He wakes up screaming, his dreams are full of death and battles, he gets distracted during real battles, and doesn’t find much joy in living anymore. Bridge Four has evolved, some characers have left, ohers have been promoted, they’re not the found family they used to be and it’s hard on Kaladin. He’s also dealing with the rift between him and his father. So while Kaladin’s story line was tough to read and far from lighthearted, it was also the most rewarding. Not only does Kaladin become the first therapist of Roshar, but the way his feelings are talked about hit home deeply. We’re still in the middle of a panedmic and isolation is something many of us are dealing with in one way or another.

The part that most people found too long but I absolutely adored was the Navani chapters. I maybe should have mentioned that the entire A plot basically evolves around Urithiru being attacked and shit hitting the fan really hard. Our heroes and heroines have to be extra clever if they want to get out of there alive and take back the city from the Fused. Navani developes this intriguing… relationship with Raboniel, one of the Fused, that feels honest whenever a new scientific discovery is made, but is also rife with betrayal because those two are mortal enemies on different sides of this war. I loved both watching Navani’s mind come up with new and interesting ways to use natural resources for science (she’s the biggest nerd on Roshar!) and following the relationship between these two powerful women. You can never be sure whether you can trust the other. Sometimes working together benefits both, but who knows when the backstabbing will start up again? It was exciting and I quite liked how this plot line ended. Again, hugely impactful things are discovered that will definitely be important in the next book.

Dalinar and Jasnah’s plot was the one I found weakest, maybe because we also only check up on them every 500 pages (or at least that’s what it felt like). It’s not like important stuff doesn’t happen – it absolutely does – it just felt more like interludes than proper POV chapters. Speaking of interludes, there are a couple of great ones here, including two of the most interesting people, Taravangian and Szeth.
Normally, the ending offers this big, world-shattering revelation in all of Sanderson’s books but this time, that didn’t happen. There were rather a few smaller moments, no less impactful emotionally but not as climactic as we’ve gotten used to. Adolin’s story had a big glorious moment of awesome, Kaladin’s felt more like relief, Navani’s was predictable but still cool, and one moment that I can’t say much about, gave me total chills and made me fear for all of those characters and what will happen in the next book. Rhythm of War could be called a set-up book for that reason. Pieces have been moved into place but, sorry Mario, the epic showdown is in another castle.

At this point in the series, I am getting a little annoyed with the lore, history, and background konwledge I would need to keep fresh in my mind at all times to fully understand what’s going on. Let me say that I did catch a pretty big connection to the Mistborn series as well as one to Warbreaker (though the latter may have been first revealed in the previous book, I don’t remember) but reading other people’s thoughts showed me that there is a ton of stuff I completely missed, simply because I didn’t sit down for the Roshar history lesson you apparently need for that. You’d think that in a book 1200 pages long, everything I need for full enjoyment and understanding would already be included, but alas. And on the one hand, that’s okay. I still have some extra material for the Stormlight Archive on my TBR pile and I like getting these extra glimpses into this big world but even without that, I can tell you that by now it’s not just about finding Easter Eggs anymore. If you haven’t read Mistborn and Warbreaker, you may be accidentally catching spoilers for those books by reading Stormlight first…

So all things considered, this was my least favorite of the Stormlight books but as I said in the title, that’s not saying too much. Because a bad Sanderson book is still well written with deeply human characters, impeccable world building and a killer ending. It’s just not quite as good as the ones he did before is all. Oh and just because he can, Brando threw in an epilogue that gave me all sorts of goosebumps and raised my expectations for the fifth book – and the end of the first cycle – extremely high. My guess is the time we spent setting up stuff in this volume will pay off hundredfold in the next book. We’ll see…

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

A note about this book’s Graphic Audio version: Unfortunately, Graphic Audio, whose adaptations I have been enjoying for years, did a pretty bad job this time. Because of Covid-19, some actors couldn’t do their part (or not in the time frame the company wanted?) so they replaced the actress who plays Shallan with someone not Shallan-y at all. It’s not that I dislike the new voice actress (she was in Mistborn Era 2 and I adored her in that role) but if you do a full cast audio version of a story this big, you should try to avoid main character voice changes at all costs! The narrator also changed but while I prefer Dylan Lynch, the original Stormlight narrator, I thought the new one did a commendable job too.

The sound design also suffered. Jasnah’s voice sounded way too deep, Pattern’s vibrations were suddenly different, and everything sounded just a bit worse, a bit cheaper than it did before, whether it was voice and music volume, or sound effects. And what I really don’t understand – because you don’t need a specialist or sound technician for that – is the change in music! Why are there suddenly tracks that sound like 90s video game battle music? I swear I got childhood flashbacks of when I used to play Secret of Mana on the SNES.

I hope Graphic Audio finds its way back to the quality they used to provide, otherwise this was my last time listening to a Stormlight book via their adaptation. As a longtime fan of Graphic Audio, I would have preferred to wait another year for the adaptation to come out in good quality with the actors we’ve all come to know and love rather than this messy version. I also find it interesting that the (respectful but honest) three-star-review I posted on their site didn’t make it through moderation…

A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Poetry for Fans of Folklore: Catherynne M. Valente – A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

It’s been a great year for a Cat Valente fan. With two new novellas out (both of them fantastic!), I was more than happy. But I also had an itch for more so I picked up one of Valente’s older works, a collection of poetry and (very) short stories about one of my favorite topis: folktales.

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
Hardcover:
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt:

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by award-winning author and poet Catherynne M. Valente is a delightful collection of poetry, short fables, and fairy tales that explore myth and wonder, ancient and modern, with an introduction by Midori Snyder.

This is not going to be a proper review because I am simply not equipped to say anything qualified about this book. I don’t read a lot of poetry and there’s exactly three poets that I can say I love (Robert Frost, John Donne, and C.S.E. Cooney). I have no idea how to judge whether a poem is “good”, all I can go on is whether I liked it or not. And the reasons for that vary – mostly it’s just a feeling. But if a poem is inspired by a fairy tale, chances are I’ll enjoy it even if it doesn’t rhyme.

That said, I found many things to enjoy in this book. The language wasn’t my favorite – which is weird, because I adore Valente’s prose especially because it is so lyrical and poetic! – but I think I’m just not the right audience for this kind of poetry. So I read the poems more for the “plot” and the emotions they evoked but didn’t fall into the language as much.

I am, simply put, more of a prose reader so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed the little stories between the poems more than most of the actual poetry. They are little snippets or pieces of folktales rather than proper stories, most of them barely two pages long, but they reminded me also exactly why I fell in love with Valente in the first place. She not only has a vast knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and folklore from all over the world, but she’s also been questioning them in her writing since forever.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across a “feminist spin on fairytale XYZ” but Valente has been doing that since the beginning of her career. She questions why Cinderella’s sisters and Cinderella should work against each other, whether Bluebeard’s wife is maybe okay being complicit with what he does, how a girl feels when she’s finally married her prince (and if maybe that was a mistake)… There’s a lot of food for thought there, in both the poems and the little stories.

I loved how these poems and stories nudged my brain to look at these well-known tales from different angles, to rethink what I’ve been told, but there’s also another theme that runs through the book like a red thread. Unsurprising to anyone who has read their share of fairy tales, they are often about terrible things happening to women and children. But in Valente’s Guide to Folktales, this gets amplified through the claustrophobic feeling running through each poem. She writes about women getting trapped by men, literally or emotionally, or being unable to escape their situation so very often that this book, despite its frequent feminist spins, gets a little depressing. That’s not a critique because Valente manages to describe these feelings of being trapped and powerless really well, but it’s a warning that this isn’t exactly a feel-good collection either.

One of my favorite poems, if not the favorite, was the one about Cinderella and her stepsisters as you’ve never seen them before. Again, it’s not a particularly happy tale but it encompasses the questions I’ve had about the fairy tale in just a few perfectly-chosen words:

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

As for inspiration, it’s not only well-known Western fairy tales, but also folklore and myhts from other places in the world. Valente does love herself some Greek underworld but she never shies away from looking across borders and seeing the rich cultures other places have to offer. I’m sure with a bit of background knowlege this book could be a treasure trove of Easter eggs.

I have no idea how to rate a book of poetry properly, so I’ll just go by my own level of enjoyment. And while this is far from my favorite Valente book, I did quite like it. It was an interesting glimpse into Valente’s earlier writing but despite its relative age, the book read very modern. It’s still relevant today and I’m sure fans of poetry will find it even better than I did.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Let’s Call It Second Book Syndrome: Robert Jordan – The Great Hunt

My Wheel of Time project is already slowing down and we’re only two books in. It’s not all Robert Jordan’s fault though. It’s a combination of life stuff, other books that are simply more interesting to me at the moment (Poppy War series, I’m looking at you), and books that come with a deadline (ARCs, Hugo finalists). But it’s also a little bit due to the fact that I was never really gripped by The Great Hunt.

THE GREAT HUNT
by Robert Jordan

Published: Tor, 1990
eBook:
624 pages
Series:
The Wheel of Time #2
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: The man who called himself Bors, at least in this place, sneered at the low murmuring that rolled around the vaulted chamber like the soft gabble of geese.

The Wheel of Time turns and ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the age that gave it birth returns again.

For centuries, gleemen have told the tales of The Great Hunt of the Horn. So many tales about each of th Hunters, and so many Hunters to tell of…Now the Horn itself is found: the Horn of Valere long thought only legend, the Horn which will raise the dead heroes of the ages. And it is stolen.

It’s a little strange and a lot disheartening how much The Great Hunt felt like a middle book. After all, the Wheel of Time series has a whopping 12 “middle books” and if they’re all like this, I have a long and arduous journey ahead of me. The reason I’m still motivated is that these first two volumes do one thing really well and that’s setting things up, promising a huge and satisfying payoff. It also helps that Brandon Sanderson is a big fan and his books always have epic endings with great twists. But on its own, The Great Hunt, didn’t do much to push the larger story forward.

We start right where we left our group of unlikely heroes at the end of The Eye of the World. They are in Fal Dara with the Shienaran people, as well as Moiraine and Lan. Now that Rand has learned that he truly is the Dragon Reborn, that he can channel and will surely go mad from it sooner or later, his reaction is first of all to run away. He wants to protect the people he loves from his inevitable mental downfall. And secondly, he refuses to be a pawn in the Aes Sedai’s game of power. Rand has no idea just what they might plan – although being gentled is a very real possibility – but he’d much rather go somewhere isolated, away from their games, and defy the madness that is supposed to come over him.

What they formed was a disk the size of a man’s hand, half blacker than pitch and half whiter than snow, the colors meeting along a sinuous line, unfaded by age. The ancient symbol of Aes Sedai, before the world was broken, when men and women wielded the Power together. Half of it was now called the Flame of Tar Valon; the other half was scrawled on doors, the Dragon’s Fang, to accuse those within of evil.

What made this book immediately more interesting than its Lord of Rings rip-off predecessor was the glimpses we got into the workings of the other side. Right at the beginning of the book we see that some characters aren’t trustworthy at all and are, in fact, working for the Dark One in secret, spinning intrigues and setting events in motion that will harm our protagonists.
But then word gets out that the Horn of Valere – which hasn’t been mentioned in the first book, as far as I remember, and thus felt to me like a huge McGuffin – had been stolen by Trollocs and Darkfriends and must be found. For whoever sounds the Horn can call back armies of dead heroes. And they will fight for the blower of the Horn, no matter what side they are on…

So off they go on yet another journey because I guess Robert Jordan couldn’t quite let go of the Lord of the Rings traditions yet. Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Loial go with the Shienarans and their sniffer Hurin to hunt for the Horn. I loved the concept of sniffers, people who can smell when violence has been done, and so can follow the Darkfriends who have stolen the Horn. Meanwhile Nynaeve and Egwene leave for Tar Valon to begin their training as Aes Sedai. Now here’s where the pacing and POV problems truly start. Both those story lines have interesting things happeneing, they show us a bit more of the world, and they drop ever so many hints of epic stuff yet to come (just not, you know, in this book). But the balance between the storylines is less than optimal.
Egwene and Nynaeve’s life at Tar Valon was so intriguing to me, the way Aes Sedai work, how they are trained, what it means to use the One Power – I wanted to learn everything about that. After all, Jordan had spent about 1000 pages making a big fuss about the Aes Sedai, so I was hoping I’d finally learn ab it more about them. And sure, he does give us glimpses and an initiation ritual, but to me, that felt like we were only scratching the surface. It’s fine to keep some information for later books, but in this case, it just felt forced.

Similarly, Rand’s journey went from exciting to frustrating, to eyeroll-inducing to quite thrilling again. What I disliked the most about the boys’ story line was how incredibly obvious the “bad guys” were. The evil characters behave so over the top manipulative that it not only isn’t fun for me as a reader but it also makes Rand and the other characters look all the more stupid for not seeing through them as well.
That said, Rand’s trip led to some highly interesting stops and added a layer to the world I had not seen coming. Fast travel via Waygate is one thing but in The Great Hunt, we learn about another mode of travel, if you can call it that. I’m trying not to spoil this for other Wheel of Time newbies like me. But this piece of world building truly puts everything upside down and offers so many possibilities for the future.

Another thing I found rather silly, just like in The Eye of the World was the lack of clear conflict for most of the book’s 600 pages. Just like last time, a last minute enemy is conjured up in the final few chapters of the book, so our heroes can have an epic showdown or a big battle. But most of the book before that ending was about other things. In this case, the focus on the Horn of Valere doesn’t end up being completely useless but the final battle still felt a bit like it came out of nowhere.
Again, there were aspects of it that I liked. What with all the travelling, we got to see new places on the map, meet other cultures (Aiel, Seanchan, Ogier!) and I even really enjoyed the time Rand and Loial spent in Cairhien, a City that apparently runs solely on political intrigue and power-hungry machinations. Their little stint there took a lot of pages, had no bearing on the overall plot (so far, at least) but it was a lot of fun!

And that sums up my overall feelings about this book. There were many chapters that were fun to read, but once I looked back on them, they felt almost useless for the larger story. We’ve known since the end of the last book that Rand is the Dragon Reborn. There are many prophecies about him (which, just saying, it would be really nice to get to read) and we know the Dark One is stirring, his agents are hiding everywhere, and the world is supposed to break again. That’s all I’ve been told about the plot of the series and, not knowing what I still have ahead of me, it didn’t feel like this particular volume got me any closer to this grand battle between Good and Evil at all. The one event that felt truly important is the ending. It’s Rand accepting who and what he is – and now we have to see where we go from there.

So how do I rate this? I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. I mostly kind of liked it even though many parts felt predictable yet again. But for the world building bits that hit me off guard and because, for no reason I can explain, I just like the characters, I’m going to rate this a bit higher than The Eye of the World. And yes, I will continue reading the series. Slowly, and without pressure. I just hope that this mind-blowing conclusion I’m hoping for is really going to come.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

These Mexican Vampires Lack Fangs: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, overhyped as she is in SFF circles, is rather hit or miss for me. Her YA novel Gods of Jade and Shadow was nice enough, but overly simplistic compared to the way it was sold (which may be more marketing’s fault than the author’s) and then Mexican Gothic was so much fun and a really great horror novel that had a lot more to say than just “oh look, creepy house”. Maybe I just like Moreno-Garcia’s newer books more than her backlist because while this vampire novel of hers was perfectly alright, I didn’t find anything special about it whatsoever.

CERTAIN DARK THINGS
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: Tor Nightfire, 2016
eBook:
352 pages
Audiobook:
8 hours 46 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Collecting garbage sharpens the senses.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Oh what a cool book this could have been if the many cool ideas it contains had been spun a little further, if there had been a little more plot and substance, a little more depth to the characters. The way it stands, this is a vampire novel that stands out only through its use of mythology and the Latinx cast of characters.

Atl is a vampire, belonging to one of several vampire sub-species/tribes, and she is on the run from the evil vampires (from a different tribe) who killed her family. In Mexico City, which is supposed to be vampire-free as opposed to the rest of the country and maybe even the world, she meets Domingo, a teenage boy who lives on the streets and makes a little money collecting garbage and doing odd jobs here or there. As Domingo loves to read comic books about vampires, he becomes obsessedw ith Atl, the first real one he’s met, and wants to become her servant/errand boy/lover/friend.

Meanwhile, we follow Nick Godoy, son of the vampire who had Atl’s family killed. He is a villain who’s easy to hate because he’s just evil. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn a lot about him as a person, or about his past. All we know is he hates Atl and wants to capture and torture her. Because he that’s his idea of fun. Not a very well-written villain, as stories go, but at least you don’t have to examine the blurry lines between good and evil while reading this book.
Lastly, there are a few human characters in addition to Domingo whose perspective made this book a lot more interesting. Ana Aguirre is a cop who has fought her fair share of vampires in her day. Rodrigo, on the other hand, works tighly with Nick and is more familiar with the criminal underbelly of Mexico City. Not only do these two provide some much-needed fleshing out of the world, but it was almost refreshing to follow a character who doesen’t revere vampires but rather fears them.

I was entertained enough while reading this book but in almost every single chapter, there were instances where I thought to myself “This has so much potential! Why not do something with it?”. First of all, the setting of Mexico City. I have never been there so I would have appreciated at least some description of the characters’ surroundings. And even if I grant you that this book wasn’t written for me specifically, and you don’t have to describe every tree or building that your characters pass in the story, there’s no argument against creating atmosphere. Which was sadly lacking here.

The world building is very basic and by that I don’t just mean the actual physical world our characters inhabit. The interesting aspect of this vampire novel is that it doesn’t offer the same old tired tropes we know from all those European vampire stories we know. Atl isn’t plae, she has no problem going out into the sun, and she doesn’t have fangs. But Atl’s type of vampire isn’t the only one! While we get glimpses or one-liners about what others there are, I would have loved to eplore them more and to see this bit of world bulding incorporated into the actual story, rather than just be exposition. The world didn’t feel lived-in or real, is what it comes down to.

The characters are similarly pale with the protagonist Domingo remaining one-dimensional throughout the entire book. Domingo isn’t even a person except in his relation to Atl, the vampire he meets and gets immediately obsessed with, only to immediately fall in eternal love with her. All he wants is be near her, help her, kiss her. Any agency he does have comes from his want to serve Atl. The only thing that makes him endearing is his naivete and his unquenchable optimism. So brownie points for that.
Atl has a backstory, of which we learn a little, but you guessed it, I would have liked a bit more.

This isn’t a big book at 350 pages and I don’t often say this but an extra 100 pages really would have done it a world of good. Then again, the beginning of the book was almost only exposition, mostly Atl explaining the world of vampires to Domingo, and the plot itself is super thin as it is. Girl comes to town, finds herself a willing little helper, girl wants to leave town. She meets with a few people, there is one confrontation, decisions are made. The end.

I still think Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a writer to watch,but I am also becoming more and more convinced that her earlier books weren’t quite ready yet. Or, to say it differently, if she wrote a book about Mexican vampires now, after having written something as fantastic as Mexican Gothic, it would be a much stronger book. I still want to read some of her backlist, but for the next book I’ll choose her latest, Velvet was the Night.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish