Superheroes and Spies: Marissa Meyer – Renegades

In my ongoing attempt to continue and finish book series I have started, I decided to finally pick up the sequel to Marissa Meyer’s Renegades. Which in turn made me realize I had never even reviewed the first book here on the blog. So I’m writing this more than a year after having read the book and many things have become hazy in my memory. But I do remember the most important bit, which is that – much like Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – I really enjoyed this book in a guilty pleasure sort of way. 🙂

RENEGADES
by Marissa Meyer

Published: 2017
Ebook: 563 pages
Series: Renegades #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: We were all villains in the beginning.

Secret Identities. Extraordinary Powers. She wants vengeance. He wants justice.
The Renegades are a syndicate of prodigies — humans with extraordinary abilities — who emerged from the ruins of a crumbled society and established peace and order where chaos reigned. As champions of justice, they remain a symbol of hope and courage to everyone… except the villains they once overthrew.
Nova has a reason to hate the Renegades, and she is on a mission for vengeance. As she gets closer to her target, she meets Adrian, a Renegade boy who believes in justice — and in Nova. But Nova’s allegiance is to a villain who has the power to end them both.

Marissa Meyer’s second series, after her wildly successful and ridiculously entertaining Lunar Chronicles, takes a step away from fairy tales and explores the world of superheroes. Nova is one such superhero, or prodigy as they are called, who lives in Gatlon City. Her parents were killed when she was just a child and ever since then, Nova has held a grudge against the Renegades – the superheroes who were supposed to save her family from the villains who killed them. It’s a pretty weak reason to join a group of villains set out to destroy the Renegades if you ask me, but if you just get over that one glaring problem, this book is a lot of fun.

But let’s start with the basic set up, because things do get a little confusing. The Renegades (officially good superheroes) fought against the Anarchists (the villains) a while ago after an age of Chaos. Many people died and many more were hurt. The Renegades now are a powerful society of gifted humans with all sorts of cool, weird, or funny superpowers. The world pretty much works according to the Renegades’ rules and while they have learned from past mistakes and implemented a code that is meant to protect civilians, their decisions are law. It’s an intriguing set up that immediately poses the question of who decides who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Because obviously, it isn’t quite that simple.

Nova is an Anarchist hoping to avenge her dead parents and destroy one of the most powerful Renegades there is – Captain Chromium. Raised by her uncle, Ace Anarchy, the leader of the Anarchists, she was born into the life of a supervillain, although of course she sees herself and her friends as the Good Guys.
Our second protagonist, Adrian aka Sketch, is a Renegade – equally born into his role as a superhero – who wants to take down the Anarchists. He also hopes to figure out who killed his mother, Lady Indomitable, and he also has a big secret. Adrian’s ability is to draw anything and make it real. So if he draws a worm, he can take it out of the piece of paper and it’s an actual, live worm. That’s a pretty cool power and Adrian has figured out that if he draws tattoos on himself, he can create his own new superpowers. As the Sentinel, his secret identity, he hopes to help the Renegades even more in their quest to vanquish the Anarchists.
The Anarchists decide that it would be amazing if they had a spy among the Renegades and send Nova to compete in the trials looking for new Renegade members. Nova’s superpower is not needing any sleep and being able to put people to sleep with her touch. As an Anarchist, she goes by Nightmare, but in her new Renegade identity, she is Insomnia.

You can see how this book can get confusing but the whole secret identity thing also makes it incredibly compelling. Both Nova and Adrian have to worry constantly that their secret will be discovered, so even during the quieter scenes, there is a feeling of tension. One wrong word and Nova’s scheme will blow up. She also has to try to work against the Renegades while keeping up the pretense of working for them. Adrian, on the other hand, never wanted his Sentinel identity to stay secret but a certain turn of events makes it necessary for him to hide it. So you can expect scenes that almost reminded me of romantic comedies where one person pretends to be two people, leaving the room as one character and returning as another. Adrian needs to turn into the Sentinel occasionally, but then he has to explain where his regular self was during that time, and Nova faces the same problem as Nightmare/Insomnia.

The plot itself doesn’t actually have that much to offer. There are exciting action sequences and of course a budding romance, which I enjoyed a lot. But there isn’t that much story there. Most of the book is concerned with Nova infiltrating the Renegades, learning the ropes, and hiding who she really is. Meyer does do some groundwork for what I suspect will become the overarching story, though. A side character named Max is held in quarantine in the Renegades headquarter because of his particular superpower. Finding out what that is was part of the reason I kept reading. The whole Anarchist/Renegades shenanigans themselves weren’t that interesting because, while fun to read, they never really pushed the story forward. Until the very end, that is, when some things are revealed, but mostly more questions pop up to be (hopefully) answered in the later books. This reads more like an introduction to a story rather than a story in its own right, but if you’re okay with that, it’s still a lot of fun.

Renegades also doesn’t provide much in terms of side characters. There are plenty of them but they are as forgettable as they are difficult to tell apart. It doesn’t help that each one of them has a civilian name and a superhero/supervillain name. As they all remain pretty bland and are reduced mostly to their superpower and maybe a quippy line here or there, I didn’t remember any of them (seriously, not a single one) until I started the second book. And even now (20% through the sequel) I don’t really remember them, I feel like I’m meeting them for the first time. That’s not a good sign…

I read some other people’s reviews of this book in order to jog my memory and I have now learned two things. Number one: Boy, this book got some negative reviews! Not hateful ones, but really thoughtful, critical ones that point out everything that’s wrong with it. I remember when I first read the book I was a bit underwhelmed as well, but now, a year later, I seem to only remember the fun bits. Number two: I have forgotten so much! Again, not a good sign, but considering how “meh” this book was received by many reviewers, maybe it’s for the best that I kind of blacked out all its flaws?
Many people had problems with the clichĂ©s but I just assumed those happened on purpose. Because this is a story about superheroes and villains… I mean, you’d expect some cheesy dialogue, flowing capes, and somewhat predictable battles, right?

This review is probably not what it would have been had I written it right after reading the book, but what I remember was really not that bad. Sure, the romance is obvious, the side characters were pale cardboard cutouts, and there wasn’t much plot. But Meyer put so much creativity into her characters’ superpowers and she writes action scenes so well that I found the read quite engaging. Her prose may be on the simple side, but its straight-forwardness makes this such a page turner. Renegades is clearly not be on par with the Lunar Chronicles, although those books too weren’t particularly good from a critic’s standpoint. I am an unabashed fan, however, and I am determined to enjoy this series as well, regardless of the many sensible voices telling me why I kind of shouldn’t.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Witcher Continues: Andrzej Sapkowski – Sword of Destiny

I was so taken with The Last Wish that I didn’t wait long to continue reading about Geralt of Rivia and the various monsters he encounters. Although this second story collection is a little different than the first (in some ways better, in some rather worse), I like where the story is going. I also finally watched the first few episodes of the Netflix show and I really, really liked them!

SWORD OF DESTINY
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by: Orbit, 1992
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: The Witcher #0.75
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: “He won’t get out of there, I’m telling you,” the pockmarked man said, sahking his head with conviction.

The Witcher returns in this action-packed sequel to The Last Wish, in the series that inspired The Witcher video games.
Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.
In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Geralt of Rivia is back and he’s ready to slay some monsters for coin. Or, you know, not. He’s equally as ready to befriend the monster, refuse the coin, muse about the existence of destiny, and yearn for the sorceress Yennefer. And all that despite the fact that he’s not supposed to have feelings…
Lots of people have been recommending this series long before it was on Netflix, and I now understand why. Geralt is such a great character. Brooding and quiet, seemingly unfeeling but so obviously a Good Guy that it hurts, he goes through the world, seeing all the evils there are and trying to make things a little better. He can also do magic and use elixirs to give himself superpowers, so that doesn’t hurt. But I was most impressed that a character who says relatively little can feel so three-dimensional and real. In case you haven’t noticed, I love Geralt with all my readerly heart.

This book is, again, comprised of  (this time not so short) stories that aren’t immediately connected to each other but paint a wonderful picture of the world and start to flesh out a much  bigger tale. Although the allusions to fairy tales weren’t as obvious here as they were in the previous book, there were tales where I could recognise The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, and The Six Swans. The stories aren’t retellings but these fairy tales are used as a sort of kick-off point for an original tale. Of course, Geralt then tells us that we’re idiots for believing those old tales because reality is totally different.
And it’s true. The Little Mermaid asks her prince why he doesn’t change his appearence for her and comes to live with her under the sea. One of the former six swans (there weren’t even six) laughs about the idea that a shirt made of nettles should have lifted his curse, and so on. So fairy tales are used and turned on their head, and we can laugh at these tropes at the same times as reading about different ones. Although it’s not a big part of the book, I absolutely loved discovering these little hints and allusions, and seeing what Sapkowski makes of them.

What I loved the most in this book was Geralt as a character.  But I was also ridiculously happy to see some side characters from the previous book again. Dandelion the bard is back, Yennefer becomes way more important and has easily turned one of the most intriguing characters in this series for me. And we meet Ciri – who I only knew would be important from the video game (which I didn’t play myself but my boyfriend did and I caught the occasional glimpse of it). Ciri’s appearence also connects this volume to the first book because events that happened in The Last Wish have an effect on events from Sword of Destiny. So it’s not just random tales about a witcher that later evolved into a series of novels, but Sapkowski already had some sort of plan for a larger story.

There were obvious differences between the first collection and this one. Obviously, I jumped into this book because I really enjoyed the first one, so I was a little surprised that I wasn’t getting more of the same. The most obvious difference is the length of the stories and subsequently the entire book – but then, I consider more Geralt a good thing. However he writing style itself also changed and that is what put me off the most. It wasn’s stellar in the first book either, but since The Last Wish was so dialogue-heavy, I didn’t mind too much. I could pretend that characters simply expressed themselves in strangely or had certain ways of speaking.
In Sword of Destiny, there is a lot more description – which I find good, in general, as it helps flesh out the world and the characters – but most of it is rather bad and inconsistent. I stumbled across many lines where I thought “oh boy, was he trying to be poetic here?”, there are frequent repetitions, sometimes words just don’t quite fit. It was a pretty jarring experience and if I hadn’t loved the other aspects of the book so much, I probably would have DNFed this book. I assume much of this can be attributed to this being a translation. But, not speaking Polish, I don’t really know. It might just be how Sapkowski wrote it in the original. This has prompted me to try the next book in German, to see if the language is as jarring in a different translation. I will let you know how that went in my next review. 🙂

Despite my problems with the writing, I really enjoyed reading this and I would be totally happy to dive into the next witcher novel (a proper novel this time) right away. The last story in this collection, and its ending in particular, made me cheer out loud because not only was it very touching, it also delivered a pretty cool twist. My plan is to watch the first season of the Netflix show and then continue with Blood of Elves (Das Erbe der Elfen in German). I also got The Witcher III for my birthday, so I think I’m all set for the foreseeable future. All that’s left to say is: “Toss a coion to your witcher!”

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen

This book took me way longer to read than expected. As a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen (the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) and a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I thought this would be just my jam. And it was enjoyable to some degree but it just never really grabbed me. Which is probably why it took me two months to finish the thing…

THE SNOW QUEEN
by Joan D. Vinge

Published by: Tor, 1980
Ebook: 495 pages
Series: The Snow Queen Cycle #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one. 

The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. Their only chance at surviving the change is if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space. Interstellar politics, a millennia-long secret conspiracy, and a civilization whose hidden machineries might still control the fate of worlds all form the background to this spectacular hard science fiction novel from Joan D. Vinge.

I’ll start this review with my very first impressions and those didn’t happen in chapter one, but rather with the author’s note. Normally, I find forewords interesting as they give some background info about how a book came to be or what inspired it. Joan D. Vinge was the first author ever that I slightly disliked after reading the foreword. I had never read anything else by her, I hadn’t read a ton of reviews of her books, I like to think that I approached this novel quite neutrally, or leaning towards positive. After I finished reading the introduction however, I felt like I’d just read a list of pretexts as to why the author didn’t publish for a while or why she published things that others may have disliked… Again, I knew nothing about her or her work and writers can publish or not publish whatever the hell they like, if you ask me, but reading this author justifying herself felt rather petty to me. This was not the best start for reading my first Vinge novel.

But when I got to the actual story, I quickly forgot all about the author and simply basked in the very interesting world she has created. On the planet Tiamat, people are divided into Summers and Winters. Winters are more tech-loving, logical people while Summers hold to spiritual traditions and felt like a more earth-bound people. The divide between technology and a more agricultural life was tangible from the very beginning of the novel, but the story holds much more world building in store. The Hegemony needs Tiamat because of a certain ressource that can grant you prolonged (maybe even eternal?) youth but it also needs Tiamat to stay technologically backwards enough that they don’t gain power over the Hegemony. It’s a super interesting concept that asks questions of colonialsm, “advanced” versus “backwards” planets and the value of human and animal lives compared to personal gain.

On that world, Moon and Sparks have grown up as Summer children and eventually young lovers. They both hope to become sibyls – a sort of Summer prophet who is said to have a connection to the Lady and be able to answer all questions truthfully. When only Moon is chosen as a sibyl, Sparks goes to the Winter city of Carbuncle, where the Queen rules. I really enjoyed his initial culture shock. Not only does his gullibility send him into dangerous situations right away but we also learned more about how different the worlds of Summer and Winter really were. And we see through Sparks’ eyes just how powerful and enticing the Queen can be. A chain of events sends Moon on an adventure of her own, but I want to say as little about the plot as possible to avoid spoilers.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. Some side characters grew on me quietly, others I disliked, but most of them felt quite fleshed out and three-dimensional. My favorites were probably the police offices – the Blues – Jerusha and Gundhalinu. In alternating chapters we follow Jerusha, Moon, Sparks, the Queen herself, and a handful of other side characters. Each of them brings their own point of view to the mix and lets us experience the truly amazing world through different eyes. The world practially built itself that way and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The other thing I liked, although it took a while to get going, was how this is a retelling of The Snow Queen. It’s not the most straight-forward retelling but I kept stumbling across elements of the original fairy tale again and again, and every time I made a connection I was happy. Sparks being drawn in by the Queen Arienrhod and turning more and more into a creature of ice, Moon undertaking a journey in order to save her boyfriend, the people she meets on the way, it’s all there.

The reason this book took me a ridiculous amount of time to read, however, was the writing style. This was one of those books that was fun enough as long as I was reading but whenever I put it down, I had no desire whatsoever to pick it up again. So I read other books in between. And then some more books. And every time I saw the cover of this one, I felt slightly guilty that I still hadn’t finished it, so I’d pick it back up again and start reading and wonder what my problem was. It was fine, why didn’t I want to know what happened next? I still can’t answer that question properly but I suspect that old timey writing style and the way some things just take ages to move along may have had to do with it. It is a well-written book but the style didn’t really grab me. It felt a bit outdated (even though I usually don’t mind that) and although I appreciated the characters, I never built an emotional attachment to them – the one exception being Gundhalinu at the end of the story. That guy really grew on me and I wanted his story to have a happy end so badly.

All things considered, I did like this book and I loved the world building, but it’s not a book I’ll remember super fondly. I would like to read the sequel simply because I can’t get enough of the world Vinge has created and I want to learn more about it, but knowing myself, it’s probably going to be a few years before I build up the motivation to dig into that.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

 

An Artist’s Life: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series has been on my radar ever since I caught sight of the first of those gorgeous covers (I mean look at the one below!). The only book I’ve read so far was the amazing (if super tough to read White as Snow), so it was time I  tried another one of these retellings. This one takes a (to me) unknown Hungarian folktale and weaves it into a contemporary story. As a fairy tale retelling, I have to say this failed pretty bad, but as a novel in general, I really enjoyed it!

THE SUN, THE MOON, AND THE STARS
by Steven Brust

Published by: Ace, 1987
Hardcover: 210 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: You want to know what good is? I’ll tell you what good is.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow’s belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll’s cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust’s fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.

Greg is a struggling artist who shares a studio with some of his artist friends and still hopes tfor a break through, who wants so badly to create a masterpiece, a painting that will mean something. Until then, however, all he can do is pursue his art and hope for the best.

This novel was interesting first of all because of its structure. Each chapter is divided into several sub-chapters. The first deals with Greg’s past (his time at university, how he got to know his girlfriend, how he first met his friends, etc.), the second is about the present. Greg does karate and art. He spends most of his time in the studio and, at the beginning of this book, starts a new project on a large canvas, lovingly called “the Monster”. The other sub-chapters talk about how Greg approaches his new painting, about art in general, and – not to forget – about the Hunarian fairy tale Greg tells his friends. You may have guessed that this is the titular “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”.

As a huge fan of fairy tales, I was quite surprised that I found myself more drawn to Greg’s life in the 80ies and his musings about art than about the fairy tale he tells. The story of Csucskari and his two brothers who set out into the world to restore light to the sky was nice enough, but it didn’t really capture me the way Greg’s struggles did. You see, he and his four friends share their studio and it’s getting pretty hard raising rent, also due to the fact that most of them don’t really sell any paintings. They paint and draw and sketch because it’s what they love to do but during this novel, they all ask themselves what’s the point. Shouldn’t they just quit? Get a day job with a secure income? Maybe waste their potential?

There isn’t even a lot of plot in this book. Greg and his friends are thinking about doing an art show, so they can get their paintings out into the world. But mostly, the story deals with their relationship with each other and with art. Greg talks a lot about what he wants to achieve, about techniques and light sources and I am making it sound super boring right now, but it totally isn’t!! I don’t paint at all, although I did just do my very first painting with acrylics (an art class I got as a gift) and it was a lot  of fun and also way harder than I expected. But even without any real knowledge about art history or craft, I found everything Greg had to say about it interesting. His troubles can be easily translated into any other art, be it writing, or dancing, or martial arts. He talks about hours of practice, about using what you were taught at school, about how ideas may come easily sometimes and sometimes just won’t come at all. Even if you’re not artistic in any way, I’m sure you will be able to relate because everything Greg struggles with is utterly human.

What I didn’t get was how the fairy tale was supposed to fit into the narrative. Sure, Greg has Hungarian roots and he tells his friends folk tales sometimes, which is why we get to read “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” but it really had nothing to do with the main story. I guess if you put some effort into it, you can kind of see parallels between Csucskari’s quest and Greg’s search for meaning in his art and also the evolution of his new painting. But the connection isn’t really tangible. I enjoyed the fairy tale as such, especially because it was one I hadn’t read before, but I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.

As for the characters, they are an interesting lot. I read several reviews that said Greg was a pretentious douchebag, and yeah, I guess to some degree he is. But I never had any trouble sympathising with him. The other characters remain rather pale, but as a group, the five artists felt real and believable. They critique each other’s art – sometimes that leads to them being pissed at each other, but it also makes them better at what they do. They chat among themselves, they dream together, they worry together, they fight and they make up. The present day passages are very dialogue-heavy so the characters come across mostly through what they say or choose not to say. Otherwise, we really only focus on Greg.

This book was not what I expected, especially as a fairy tale retelling. But I found it immensely entertaining, I learned a lot about painting and about art in general, and while I think the connection between fairy tale and real life was minimal at best, I’d recommend this to anyone who is involved in the arts and maybe wants to create something themselves. If nothing else, the book will make you feel understood and less alone.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

I had the hardest time finding an indie book for the Retellings Challenge for several reasons. Number one, I admit it, I am biased and book covers do have an impact on me. So if I see a cover that looks like someone threw it together with Word Art, I don’t want to read that book, no matter how amazing the text may be. Plus, it’s really hard to find recommendations when you’ve already read the most “hyped” indie retellings. But I did find something (with a gorgeous cover, no less) that turned out to be really, really good!

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

Published by: Little Birds Books, 2015
eBook: 260 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: It was destined to fail because it was an artificial species.

Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.
Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.
A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.

Many fairy tale retellings use the original tale and give it more depth by putting them in a different setting or time period, by giving the protagonists a job other than “prince” or “miller’s daughter” and by giving them a backstory and personality. That’s what I love so much about retellings – that you can discover something new about a tale you generally already know. So reading about an android Cinderella or a Beauty who is also a gardener is something I enjoy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good way to retell an old story.

Esther Dalseno went a different route  in her version of The Little Mermaid. None of the characters in this book have names. The little mermaid is just the little mermaid, the sea witch gets no name, and even the prince and his uncle are only called by their title. It’s to the author’s credit that it took me a few chapters to even figure this out because the story flows beautifully right from the start and I didn’t feel like there was anything missing. There are enough original ideas to make up for this traditional way of telling a fairy tale. The prose in general was very good and made it easy for me to fall into the story. The one big gripe I have – and that goes to the list of baises I have against indie books – was the many, many typoes and even grammar mistakes. They got worse and worse toward the end of the book and that’s just not necessairy. A copy editor should have easily found those mistakes and fixed them. They’re not even style problems (which are subjective anyway) but really just spelling mistakes. That’s the only thing that ever took me out of the story. It’s a minor gripe but it bothered me nonetheless.

Now let me tell you why this was such a great book anyway. The little mermaid lives with her six sisters and her father in the underwater palace where they eat delicious food and admire their own beauty. The merpeople are completely emotionless and don’t really do anything, but learning about their species – and the way that the little mermaid just doesn’t seem to fit in – was quite fascinating. We don’t just see them they way they are now but we get a little origin story about how merpeople even came to exist. The same goes for the sea witch’s backstory which is revealed more and more throughout the novel.

The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely – definitely more closely than other retellings I’ve read and when I say “the fairy tale” I don’t mean the Disney version but the one by Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid falls in love with the handsome prince but what she wants even more than to be with him is an Immortal Soul! And because she believes that marriage grants you half your partner’s soul, she makes a plan to visit the sea witch and have herself turned human. She gives up her voice for human legs and goes to the palace to win her prince. So far, so predictable. But wait! While the prince may not get a name, he does get a personality. His father has just died and the prince is dealing with severe depression and self-harm. That came out of nowhere for me and gave the otherwise very pale character a lot of depth. In addition to the mermaid’s point of view, we also follow his and while I may not have liked him very much, I appreciated him as a character.

Once the little mermaid has turned human and lives at the palace, the story offers more and more original ideas that diverge from the fairy tale.The prince’s uncle (and king regent), for example, plays an important role. He was in fact the most interesting of all the characters. Servants gossip about how he picks a different maid each week to visit his room at night, yet he seems like a sad, lonely man. The little mermaid is quite scared of him (because she thinks his beard is an animal parasite sticking to his face). Figuring out the uncle’s character, why he is the way he is, and what his plans are for the future, was almost as much fun as following the little mermaid in her quest to marry the prince.

If you’ve read the Andersen fairy tale, you know it doesn’t end happily. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this version has a similar ending. The tone of the book is pretty dark right from the start, so a happy ending would simply not have fit! But even though you may know how the little mermaid’s story ends, you’ll be hooked until the last page to find out what happens to her sisters, her father, the sea witch, and the merpeople in general. I liked how Esther Dalseno mixed a predictable story line (if you know the fairy tale) with her own ideas in order to keep us readers guessing. The whole backstory of the merpeople’s origin and the uncle’s role turned this into a fascinating read. Except for the many spelling errors, I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this if you like fairy tale retellings and want to try something published by a very small press. I certainly hope Esther Dalseno publishes more retellings in the future.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

If you’re curious about the type of errors I was moaning about, here are a few examples:

[…] before her could examine them[…]

[…] usually the couple were sick of the sight of each another by one year’s end. […]

[…] he had saw fit to […]

But then again, you’ve been to absorbed to notice.

Again, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the story for me but it is something that’s easily remedied. If I can find these errors while reading the story a single time, a publisher should have been able to see them as well and fix them.

Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook – The Meowmorphosis

Holy shit, I had forgotten how utterly depressing Kafka was. Even this – at times quite clever – retelling couldn’t lift my spirits. I read The Metamorphosis in German a long time ago and while I remembered the main things that happened to Gregor Samsa after he wakes up as a cockroach/bug, I had forgotten how depressing every single character and every single monologue or dialogue was. Well, Coleridge Cook has reminded me. I can’t say this was a pleasure but I am rather impressed with the author’s skill.

THE MEOWMORPHOSIS
by Frank Kafka and Coleridge Cook

Published by: Quirk Classics, 2011
Paperback: 206 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: One morning, as Gregor Samsa was awking up from anxious dreams, he discovered thathe had been changed into an adorable kitten.

Thus begins The Meowmorphosis—a bold, startling, and fuzzy-wuzzy new edition of Franz Kafka’s classic nightmare tale, from the publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Meet Gregor Samsa, a humble young man who works as a fabric salesman to support his parents and sister. His life goes strangely awry when he wakes up late for work and finds that, inexplicably, he is now a man-sized baby kitten. His family freaks out: Yes, their son is OMG so cute, but what good is cute when there are bills piling up? And how can he expect them to serve him meals every day? If Gregor is to survive this bizarre, bewhiskered ordeal, he’ll have to achieve what he never could before—escape from his parents’ house. Complete with haunting illustrations and a provocative biographical exposé of Kafka’s own secret feline life, The Meowmorphosis will take you on a journey deep into the tortured soul of the domestic tabby.

If you’ve read or at least heard about these Quirk Classics books, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was just that – the Bennett sisters fighting off zombies and polishing their swords instead of doing embroidery and learning French. It is a silly sort of fun that you have to be in the right mood for. These books are also essentially the original text with only some words or passages replaced so the new “version” makes sense. There’s Android Karenina, Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters, and as I found out only recently, The Meowmorphosis.

Coleridge Cook took Kafka’s Metamorphosis and, instead of having Gregor Samsa wake up as a cockroach (“Ungeziefer” doesn’t actually mean cockroackin German, but it’s a sort of collective word used for small, unwanted creatures, usually bugs), he wakes up as an adorable kitten. But if you think the fact that Gregor has turned into something that our society views as cute and fluffy makes this a happy or fun book, you are so wrong. Kafka’s original was a great book but also super depressing. And what made it so depressing wasn’t even that the protagonist was changed into a huge cockroach, but rather how his family deals with this change.

In this version, Gregor wakes up as a kitten and does what kittens do. He has a fondness for naps, he has to learn how to walk on four paws instead of two legs, he wants milk and fish and also to be left alone. His parents react to this rather fantastic change not with the kind of outrage one would expect (like, what the hell, our sun turned into an animal overnight!!) but they think more of themselves and their future, as they were dependent on Gregor’s job as a traveling salesman. It’s been a while since I read the original text, but if this book is anything like the Austen adaptations, then the text itself remains very much the same, except Gregor is a kitten and not a cockroach.

Where the story does change – and that’s at the same time this book’s strength and what makes it even more depressing – is when Gregor escapes his apartment and explores the town. He soon meets another cat and (because humans don’t understand his speech anymore) tries to talk to it. As it turns out, Gregor isn’t the only sad working man who has turned into a cat overnight. He meets a whole group of cats who used to be men and now roam the streets of Prague in their new feline shape. This bit also incorporates one of Kafka’s other books, The Trial, into the plot. And Gregor talks with some other cats and how they are, in every way, superior to us humans.

But one thing is too obvious to have escaped me, namely, how little inclined they are, compared with us cats, to stick together, how silently and sullenly and with what unspoken hostilities they pass one another by, how only the basest of interests such as food, drink, or breeding can bring them together for a little time in ostensible union – and how often those very interest give rise to violent conflict among them.

The ending of the book is equally sad and disturbing as the original. But I do want to say that Colerdige Cook did a fantastic job writing the original parts in Kafka’s style. There are seriously long monologues about how shit the world is, especially if you’re working a mediocre job that you hate. I’m not personally a fan of Kafka’s writing style but I have great respect for anyone who can imitate it to the point where you don’t know where Kafka ends and Cook begins. The entire book reads as one, without any noticable breaking point.

My favorite part by far – because it was funny rather than depressing – was the little Kafka “biography” at the end which explains that Kafka has been followed by cats much of his life. The suggested reading group questions are even funnier (“Gregor Samsa has some issues, doesn’t he?” and “Frank Kafka had some issues, didn’t he?”). If you like Franz Kafka or even if you don’t like him and want to see one of his tales made slightly ridiculous, then pick this up. As much of a downer as it is, I actually quite enjoyed reading it.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Lesbian Feminist Snow White: Melissa Bashardoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In my everlasting quest to discover new and fresh takes on fairy tales and mythology, I have come across Melissa Bashardoust’s debut novel, which was sold as a lesbian retelling of Snow White. Teh strengths of the novel were definitely the original ideas the author brought to the table. Trying to kind of stick to the fairy tale may have actually hurt this book more than helping it. My overall opinion is both underwhelmed and positively surprised.

GIRLS MADE OF SNOW AND GLASS
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published by: Flatiron Books, 2017
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Lynet first saw her in the courtyard. Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree.

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale.
At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone has never beat at all, in fact, but shed always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the kings heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that shell have to become a stepmother.
Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queens image, at her fathers order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother shes ever known or else defeat her once and for all.
Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

This is the story of princess Lynet and her stepmother Mina, told through both their perspectives. We are slowly eased into the world of this particular Snow White retelling, as well as to one of the two protagonists. Lynet lives in the castle with her father the king, and nothing weighs on her as much as her father’s pressure for Lynet to be exactly like her dead mother. As she died during childbirth, Lynet never got to know her, but she is told on a daily basis just how much like her she is – same look, same fragility (oh, how she loathes the word!), same spirit.

Mina on the other hand is Lynet’s stepmother and actually gets along really well with her adopted daughter. Some of her chapters are flashbacks to how she came to be queen and I really, really loved those chapters. They show a young girl with an oppressive, scary magician father. Mina is ambitious but she is also driven by fear. She wants to break out of her life and she wants power – because that is what she feels she needs to be safe. So she plays the part perfectly, gains the newly widowed king’s attention, and works her way into his inner circle via his small daughter. I found it fascinating how well Bashardoust managed to write a sympathetic character who is nonetheless using manipulation to get to her goal. Like, I thought I was supposed to hate her. She’s the villain right? Well… not so much. But she’s no goody-two-shoes either. So well done on flawed and believable characters!

The first half of the book has almost nothing to do with the fairy tale Snow White. A new surgeon beings working at the palace – a young girl named Nadia – and Lynet feels immediately drawn to her and strikes up a friendship. It’s not hard to see that this friendship will eventually bloom into a romance, so I was quite disappointed that we get so little development and chemistry between these two characters. There is far more spark between Lynet and Mina and it was their mother/daughter relationship that kept me glued to the pages more than anything else.

Lynet and Mina also are each special in a magical sort of way. The book title is a dead givaway and it’s revealed pretty early on in the book, so I’ll just tell you: Lynet was created out of snow and magic. Mina, whose heart failed when she was still a child, has a magical heart made of glass. These may sound like tropey fantasy add-ons at first, but it has a huge impact on the plot and the protagonists. While Mina has been told all her life that she cannot love and will never be loved, Lynet feels even more that she was just made to be a stand-in for her dead mother. Their personalities have evolved around their magic and I felt that this was also really well done by the author.

I won’t say much about the plot or the villain – they are both super obvious once the plot actually starts. At about the halfway mark, I felt the book lost a lot of its qualities. Inserting all the necessairy Snow White plot points to turn this into a retelling felt rather forced and ruined what would otherwise have been a beautiful character-driven book about a mother and daughter and a world that would pit them against each other. But you get it all: the poison, the stepmother worrying that she’s being replaced by a younger, more beautiful woman, the prince (in this case: princess), and so on.

The weaker points of the novel were definitely the world building. Except for a few mentions here or there about a curse that leaves the castle in eternal winter, about politics (North vs. South), and about university, there wasn’t much there. I also thought that the magic was built up too slowly at first, only to rush in with a bang at the very end. If you give your characters magical abilities, at least throw in some kind of a learning curve… The romance between Lynet and Nadia was just badly done, and I much preferred the more subtle and growing relationship between Mina and the huntsman!

As for the ending: I loved where the characters ended up and how they resolved the problem of succession and rivalry. Everything did fall into place a bit too neatly however, and because the villain of the novel was so over the top evil, and for no discernible reason, it also fell a little flat. Before the big showdown even began, I already knew how everything would be resolved and I prefer at least some element of surprise when it comes to fairy tale retellings.
All that said, I did enjoy what Bashardoust has done with these characters, and while this turned from a really good into a mediocre book, I will definitely check out her upcoming novel Girl, Serpent, Dove.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad

Pretty yet disappointing: Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

There was one book in 2019 that I had been looking forward to more than any others. I adored Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo-winning short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”, her blog, her writing in general, and the synopsis of her first novel sounded so utterly perfect that I had it pre-ordered as soon as it was listed on Amazon. Then the rave reviews came in and I was sure I was in for a treat. But – and this is my theme of 2019, apparently – hypes around certain books are not to be trusted. This was by no means a bad book! But it didn’t deliver what was promised and that was enough to leave me disappointed yet again.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY
by Alix E. Harrow

Published by: Redhook, 2019
Hardcover: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: When I was seven, I found a door.

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

January Scaller lives in a big old house with Mr. Locke, the man who has taken her in as a ward and given her father a job hunting for archeological artifacts. As a girl who’s not white (although nobody is sure just what color her skin is and with which specific prejudices people should meet her) in the early 20th century, January is constantly reminded how lucky she is to have such a benefactor. January gets an education, has a myriad of odd things to discover in Locke’s house, and yet never feels quite right.

We meet January as a meek but curious (in the sense of interested) girl who is bound by the laws of her time and her benefactor. Be quiet, stay in the background, be polite, don’t show too much emotion, don’t try to grow above your station… those are the rules January has to live by and she knows they suck just the way I knew it when I started reading this book. So it’s easy to feel sympathy for our protagonist but despite that sympathy, I had a hard time truly caring about January. She was like a portrait to me. Distant, a specimen, a sketchy character study rather than a person who felt real. Early on in this book, we are told (sometimes shown, but on many occasions just told, in exceedingly pretty words) that January is bookish, yearns to belong somewhere, kind of misses and doesn’t miss her absent father, and kind of loves but maybe doesn’t really love Locke, who has been more father to her than her actual one.

But not totally feeling the protagonist is not a reason to give up on this book. The language – oh, the language – was so lovely, I thought it might keep me reading all by itself. Who cares about plot or character when there are such words, strung together to paint pictures in my mind. It turns out, I did care eventually. The writing style, though without a doubt beautiful and lyrical, also gave me a sort of… studied impression. I don’t know how to explain it better (I wish I had Harrow’s talent for words right now!), but I never had the impression that those gorgeous descriptions flowed organically, but rather that they were researched and thought about and put there precisely at the right point with a scalpel. That may not change anything about how beautiful the prose is as such, but it left a sort of bitter aftertaste for me.

As for the other characters, most of them felt as distant to me as January. We are told many things about the small cast, but for my taste, we didn’t see enough of their actions to truly get to know them. Even Bad, January’s dog, didn’t excite me – and I’m usually a sucker for animals in stories. Sure, I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to fail, but I wasn’t really in it. Speaking of the bad guys. If the revelations at the end of the book were supposed to be unexpected plot twists, they failed miserably. It was very obvious from a very early point that there is something wrong with certain people and it didn’t even take that much imagination to figure out most of the truth, minor details excluded.

Which leads me to the plot as such. It is slow! It takes a long, long time to truly get started because the book is so focused on producing pretty words to describe things that almost nothing happens for the first half of the book. Well, almost nothing. My favorite part of this story – and the part that should have been a whole entire book, if I had anything to say about it – was the book within a book. January finds a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” one day and starts reading it. We get to read that book too, in alternating chapters (one chapter January story, one chapter book within a book), and while it also took me a chapter to warm to that story, I ended up really loving it. I cared about the characters in that story, I wanted to learn more about them and more about the world they come from. So, the actually fictional “Ten Thousand Doors” was a fantastic book for me, but sadly way too short, as it’s only part of the real world Ten Thousand Doors of January.

That title and the synopsis on the back of the book also imply things that are simply not delivered. Of course I didn’t expect to actually discover ten thousand doors into other worlds with our protagonist, but I was hoping for at least a few of them. We only really get to see one in any detail, and the world building for that had its own kind of magic that reminded me of Strange the Dreamer. It was everything I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in the real world, so this is more historical novel than fantasy (again, not a bad thing, but marketing led me to believe differently and I feel a little cheated). There simply wasn’t enough magic for my taste, at least during the first two thirds of the book.

Now, the last third finally got going. Every gripe I’ve mentioned above sort of goes away toward the end. January finally acts instead of just reacting to her surroundings, the plot turns into a thrilling ride with dangerous situations, plenty of magic and mythology, and I finally got the message of this story. It’s about love, spanning decades and worlds, about family and belonging, about finding out who you are and carving out your own place in the world. I really loved the ending of this book, but I can’t say it made up for the hours I spent reading just so I could get it done. I was bored for long stretches of this book and even the pretty writing didn’t help me get over my disappointment of finding something very different from what I had expected.

I know I’m pretty alone with that opinion and, believe me, I wish I was one of the many voices who raved about this book and gave it the highest ratings. I love Alix E. Harrow’s writing in general and I will definitely check out whatever she does next. But this book right here ended up being only okay for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

A Charming Middle-Grade Fairy Tale: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

October has been kind of a reading slump-y month for me and I’ve come to realize why. Because expectations are a bitch! Whether it’s a book hype on Twitter and Goodreads or simply misleading marketing by the publisher, once I’ve formed certain expectations and they aren’t met – even if the book is otherwise fine – it puts me off reading a book. While this book wasn’t a disappointment the way Gideon the Ninth was, it still was so completely different from what the cover, synopsis, and general buzz about it made me expect that it took me a while to get into it.

GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets.

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Jazz Age, Mexico, Mayan gods! These are only three things that made me excited for this book. I had also heard nothing but great things about the author herself and I love mythology retellings, especially when they are written for adults (like Circe or The Golem and the Jinni). But this was also my first mistake. Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – did I see any mentions that this was a YA book or, how I would categorize it, a middle-grade one. The cover doesn’t look particularly like YA, it is shelved as “Adult” on Goodreads, and none of the reviews I’d read made me expect anything but an adult mythology retelling with a teenaged protagonist.

So the writing style was the first thing that threw me. Casiopea Tun lives a Cinderella-like life in her grandfather’s house, where she cleans, cooks, fetches things for her insufferable, arrogant douche of a cousin MartĂ­n, and can only dream of the wider world. Until, that is, she opens a chest which contains some bones. These bones happen to belong to the Mayan god of the Underworld, Hun-KamĂ© who has been imprisoned by his jealous brother who now sits on the throne of Xibalba. Because Casiopea freed Hun-KamĂ© and also got a piece of bone stuck in her thumb, these two are now connected and she has to go with him on a quest to retrieve his missing pieces that will restore him to full power. Adventure ensues.

The plot is pretty straight-forward, nothing unexpected happens, and the whole book reads more like a fable or (and that’s a plus, in my book) a fairy tale than anything else. The writing is quick and to the point, there is a lot of telling instead of showing, the plot moves fast and felt almost episodic. Each chapter is a new city, a new piece of Hun-KamĂ© to retrieve, a new enemy to defeat or mythological creature to meet. None of these adventures were bad. I enjoyed most of them a lot, to be honest, but at the same time it all felt so incredibly simple, so child-like. Even the romance, which I found sweet and subtle, was fitting for 12-year-old readers. The only reason this bothered me so much was because that’s not at all what the book promised! Had I known from the start what kind of novel I was picking up, I would have probably loved it from the start. But since I had to adjust my expectations, I only started really liking this after the first third.

Another disappointment were the setting and the time period. The setting lived mostly through its mythology and I loved learning about Xibalba, various mythical creatures and Mayan rituals. But Mexico didn’t really come to life for me. The Roaring Twenties aspect was represented even less. Sure, most chapters begin with a short introduction of the place Casiopea and Hun-KamĂ© are visiting, but mentioning bobbed hair and fast dances here and there does not make any of this come to life. This didn’t make the reading experience less pleasurable, but it also did nothing to enhance what was already a very simplistic story. There was so much potential for depth, for turning this fast-paced children’s book into what it was sold as. But apart from the fact that Mayan gods are characters, this story could have happened anywhere and during any number of time periods.

Now that I’ve got the gripes out of the way, let me tell you why this book is worth your while anyway! First of all, you, faithful readers, are aware of what you’re going to get yourselves into. Don’t pick this up if you want something like The Song of Achilles, pick it up if you feel like a light-hearted fantasy read with interesting mythology. Because what you’ll get is actually a really sweet tale of a young girl breaking out of her sad life, finding confidence, falling in love for the first time, and growing up a bit. Casiopea may be the protagonist but – just like in a lot of children’s books – she is almost a little bland. Although we’re told how feisty and headstrong she is, mostly she’s just a really good person who happens to be a teenager and thus wants things, such as freedom and pretty dresses and to be kissed by a boy. I liked her enormously, but from a storytelling persepective, I found Hun-KamĂ© and Casiopea’s jerk cousin MartĂ­n even more interesting. MartĂ­n is the kind of spoiled brat who believes himself a gift to whomever may walk in his presence and I loathed him with a passion. But then he gets his own point of view chapters and you realize there is more to him than meets the eye. Not much more, mind you, but more nonetheless.

Hun-KamĂ©, that dark, mysterious god was the perfect romantic interest for a YA novel. Kind of brooding, super sexy, protective of the heroine… but being a god who’s missing some of his pieces, and thus some of his power, he’s also going through an interesting development. As a piece of his bone is stuck in Casiopea’s finger, her humanity is swapping over to Hun-KamĂ© just as she gets some of his godly powers. I felt that Hun-KamĂ©s slow turn from godly aloofness to an almost human young man was fantastically done. Just like the romance, the changes happen gradually. It is subtle at first and becomes more and more obvious as the story progresses. Because I hate insta-love and enjoy character-focused stories, I really liked that part of the narrative.

In the reviews I’ve since read of this book, some readers were disappointed in the ending but I really liked it. Much like the plot that came before, I didn’t really find it surprising but even in its predictability, it had a lot of charm. Casiopea’s story felt well-rounded, she had grown as a person, seen more of the world, experienced romantic feelings – oh yeah, and also fought terrifying creatures, helped the god of the Underworld, and seen places others can only dream of. Although this book absolutely isn’t what it appears to be, it is a lovely kids’ adventure story with Mayan mythology.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good