Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Glass Slipper Scandal

I found this book by accident. Tansy Rayner Roberts had offered a free copy of one of her books (Musketeer Space) so I browsed through her books on Goodreads a bit, discovered this one’s awesome cover, looked up what it was about and immediately got it. Turns out, Roberts (of whom I’ve only read Love and Romanpunk before) is writing a sort of fairy tale series which you can listen to for free. As I’m writing this, the ebook version is also free on Smashwords. So go get your copy now!

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2016
Ebook:  50 pages
Series: Castle Charming #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “The best thing about magical ink,” said Amira, “is that it smells different to everyone.

Charming is a kingdom where fairy tales come true, which has been bad news for its troubled royal family, but good news for the gutter press that thrives on the scandals and gossip provided by their teenage Princes Gone Wild. Kai is a rookie reporter at the Charming Herald. Dennis is a new Royal Hound, charged with protecting the self-destructive princes from disaster.
Disaster arrives in a pumpkin coach… The story of the century will be wearing glass slippers… and Castle Charming will never be the same again.

As you may guess from the wonderful cover and title, this novella (novelette?) takes the piss of fairy tales as well as newspapers. There are several main characters, but the first we meet is Kai, a brand new journalist who’s looking for the story of the century. And that story will quite naturally involve the royal twin brothers, who are always good for a riveting headline and a front page picture. With the Autumnal Fling coming up – an occasian that is sure to leave at least one of the princes engaged to an eligible princess – you don’t have to wait long for the first news-worthy scandal.

But the story also follows Dennis, who is assigned to Royal Prince Guarding Duty with his stone-faced (and hilarious) partner Corporal Jack. And we get to see the upcoming social event of the year through the eyes of one of the many princesses, Ziyi of Xix, who hopes to break free of her life through marriage. The story flows quite naturally from there. With two princes who like to get drunk and party, an ambitious princess, an equally ambitious young journalist, and a royal guard, you know hilarity will ensue.

I loved the writing so much. It’s quirky and fun and super quick to read. The world building is done effortlessly through dialogue, the chapter headings are all newspaper headlines, and the characters – while not super three-dimensional – are nice and varied. Both Dennis and Kai are gay and seem to develop a thing for each other, Corporal Jack is pure excellence, and Ziyi is far more than just another princess trying to snag a rich prince.

The plot moves fast, maybe a bit too fast. I would love a longer version of this story (and whatever sequeles Tansy Rayner Roberts decides to write), but as a nice comfort read for an afternoon at home, this was perfect. There’s an interesting back story that builds on familiar fairy tales, and Castle Charming is a place where magic is bound to happen and where fairy tale tropes have become a thing you expect. Plus, the world holds many more things to discover. The magical ink mentioned in the very first sentence is just one of them. Through Kai and Ziyi, it becomes obvious that, although this takes place around Castle Charming, the world is a big place and there are other countries and cultures yet to discover.

Tansy Rayner Roberts has written a lovely spin on fairy tales, peopled with her own characters in her own world, and I for one can’t wait to discover what the second volume, Dance, Princes, Dance holds in store. And then I’d like at least ten more tales in this universe, please.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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Austin Chant – Peter Darling

I stumbled across this book via the Read Diverse Books challenge and because it’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan with a grown-up Peter who falls for Hook, I had to read it. While I thought the story had several problems with plot, pacing, and the ending, there were some truly enjoyable parts. Plus, it’s a really quick read if you’re looking for a short retelling of a beloved children’s classic.

peter-darlingPETER DARLING
by Austin Chant

Published by: Less Than Three Press, 2017
Ebook: 164 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: James Hook was bored.

Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

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This book is both a sequel and a sort of retelling of the original Peter Pan. Peter is returning to Neverland after spending ten years in the real world. He is grown-up, he wishes to forget everything that happened in London, and simply wants to return to being the proud and insolent youth we all know. But Neverland has changed, as have the Lost Boys, as has Captain Hook.

The first few chapters deal with Peter finding the Lost Boys at peace with the pirates, and with their new leader Ernest, a quiet and thoughtful young man. He also finds Hook, bored out of his mind, and ready to rekindle the war between them. This part of the story was my least favorite. It felt like the story didn’t know what it wanted to accomplish, the pacing was incredibly off, switching between not-so-well written action scenes and boring moments without any impact on the overall story arc. Additionally, we are told Peter is ten years older, but he still acts exactly like the original Peter Pan, the child who would not grow up. So the dialogue felt jarring at times and I had trouble imagining a 20-something man (or even a 16-year-old) saying the things he says and behaving the way he does. But what has always made Peter into who he is was his power to forget. The fairies take care of that and give him back his memories – and that’s when the Peter of this book began to feel like a proper character.

With Peter’s reemerging memories come a few flashbacks to what happened during his ten years at home. Peter grew up as Wendy Darling, making up stories of who he really is, the magical boy Peter Pan. The flashbacks were so short and far between that I wasn’t sure why they were included at all. Each scene was over before it could begin properly and, yes, the gist of it (Peter Pan being a transgender man) gets through, but there was no time to really understand what Peter’s life was like. It felt very superficial – maybe parts of those scenes were cut during editing for whatever reason, but all the flashbacks felt like they were cut in half. Either make them proper scenes or even full chapters, or leave them away completely. Personally, I would have liked to find out more about Peter’s life in London.

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The Neverland plot also takes a considerable time to get rolling. At first, it’s all exposition and fighting Hook, running away, fighting Hook again, talking to the Lost Boys, and getting to know Ernest, their new leader. I was also quite confused about Ernest as a character. I immediately liked him and felt he had a lot of potential, especially in balancing impulsive and battle-eager Pan. But he was only really present for the beginning of the story (and shortly at the end), but had no actual role to play. Again, either use the character or leave him out completely. The way it is, a great character was wasted… unless there’s a sequel planned which will feature him more prominently. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

The real heart of this story, for me, was the romance between Hook and Pan. Once these two are stuck together and have to kind of get along to survive, that’s when I got really interested. Their relationship was intriguing and tense and need I mention how much I love Hook?  It was especially his humor and his confidence that made him shine as a character. Peter also got a chance to grow as a person and understand his own feelings a bit better, but Hook stole the show on every page. Their romance was really well done and I loved reading about these two people realising how they felt about each other.

The writing was competent, but there were moments when it drifted and got really bad. The best written scenes were the ones filled with sexual tension between Hook and Pan. The battle scenes were boring to read and felt more like a transcript of a movie scene. Some of Peter’s moments of introspection made me cringe. They read like a child’s journal entry rather than a proper narration. As for the descriptions of Neverland and Peter’s surroundings, I felt like the author was trying to be poetic but the effort showed too much, so most metaphors fall falt for me. On the other hand, the dialogue was fun to read, and each character had their own distinct voice. Hook was definitely the shining star, in every possible aspect.

Another interesting thing that didn’t get nearly enough time to be explored was Neverland itself as well as its inhabitants. Austin Chant turned the Neverland fairies into insect-like creatures, although they are never fully described. But add a few too many eyes here, a couple of antennae there, a creature with lots of legs, and you get the idea. I loved that he came up with something new to make Neverland feel interesting, instead of just going with the world created by J. M. Barrie. But the fairies and a story about an old pirate captain are the only original additions to the world building. And, much like the flashbacks, they weren’t present nearly enough for my taste. See, there’s good stuff here, just never enough of it, which makes me kind of happy (because yay, good stuff) but also disappointed (what, that was it?).

Without spoiling anything, I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt rushed and didn’t adress some open questions that are really important to both protagonists. With a story that actually took care to show things aren’t black and white, that explores complicated relationships and features a protagonist still so unsure about himself, the ending felt like a cop-out, a happy end for the sake of a happy end, but without showing us how things work out. Maybe Chant is leaving room for a sequel, in which case I’d be more forgiving for ending Peter Darling this half-heartedly.

Because of the romance, the amazing James Hook, and the bits of original worldbuilding, I quite enjoyed this read. But I don’t feel the urge to pick up any of the author’s other books. If he writes something longer, where he takes more time to explore his characters and scenes, and where the pacing is a bit more balanced, then you can count me in.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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Cute but unoriginal: Alethea Kontis – Trixter

I have many feelings about Alethea Kontis’ Woodcutter Sisters series. The first two books were adorable, enchanting, and just total feel-good reads. The third book was a big mess. Which is probably why the author’s contract for the rest of the series didn’t get renewed and she started writing spin-off adventures about the Woodcutter’s young brother Trix. This book is a cute middle grade adventure that didn’t offer many new things and is rather weak, but still kind of nice. You know… for a lazy afternoon when you don’t know what else to read.

trixterTRIXTER
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Alethea Kontis, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Trix Adventures #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Trix Woodcutter ignored the twinges in his belly and the ache in his heart as he raced across the meadow.

Trix Woodcutter is the long prophesied Boy Who Talks to Animals. He’s also a foundling prankster scamp who places his family under a sleeping spell so that he can run away from home. Compelled by a vision of his dead birthmother, Trix departs on the eve of a Great Catastrophe, only to find himself caught in the maelstrom. Armed with little more than his wits and the wisdom inherent in all fey-blooded youth, Trix confronts a legendary Animal King, faces off against a ghostly feline, rescues a damsel in distress, and discovers more about himself than he ever wished to know.

And this adventure is only the beginning.

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Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

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Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours3

Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

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Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

I got this book in a bookish subscription box (The Nerdy Bookworm Box), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it so soon after publication. Before you pick this up, know that it is NOT what the synopsis promises. It’s not a royal Battle Royale, a bloody fight between three siblings to the death. It is the preparation for that fight. That’s not a spoiler, trust me, that’s a fair warning that will make you enjoy the book more.

three-dark-crownsTHREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake

Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2016
Paperback: 407 pages
Series: Three Dark Crowns #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched.

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest.

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We are introduced, one after the other, to each of the three queens fighting for the throne of Fennbirn, a magical island about which way too little is learned over the course of 400 pages. Katherine, weak and fragile, has been raised as a poisoner but her gift has still not properly set in. She is basically tortured on a daily basis by her host family, the Arrons. They let venomous snakes bite her, feed her all sorts of poisonous food, in order to build up resistance. But Kat comes away from it mostly scared and broken and full of scars.
Arsinoe is a naturalist and, just like her sister, shows very little gift. She is still waiting for her animal familiar while her best friend (and host sister) Jules has one of the most powerful gifts ever seen on the island. Her chapters are the longest and most detailed, because Jules is as much a protagonist as Arsinoe is.
Mirabella, already famous throughout Fennbirn, is the only queen with a powerful elemental gift. She can controll storms, lightning, and even fire. But she lives secluded and under constant surveillance by the priestesses of the Temple.

Three dark queens
are born in a glen,
sweet little triplets
will never be friends

Three dark sisters
all fair to be seen,
two to devour
and one to be Queen

So much for the set-up. Three Dark Crowns follows these three young queens as well as some side characters in alternating chapters and although they are all supposed to be different, the storylines and characters are all extremely similar. First of all, the side characters could easily be interchanged without anyone noticing. Most of them are just names thrown around when convenient. One side character, Luke, seems to be able to do whatever is needed for the plot at the moment. He is a librarian but also cooks and runs a coffee shop? Turns out, he can also sew dresses… and that’s as far as his personality goes. The others are literally just names, most of which I couldn’t keep apart because there is no description, not even age or relations. Sometime in the middle, I finally figured out that Madrigal is Jules’s mother, not some friend of the girls. I am the first to accept that I sometimes read inattentively, but this is not my fault, this is bad writing. Each girl gets a love interest, each is pushed or driven by a mentor figure, each has at least one friend to confide in. They do have different hair styles, which seems to be more important than giving their friends a past or character traits.

As mentioned, Arsinoe gets the most pages, Katherine gets by far the least. But I found her to be the most interesting character because she has it the hardest. But once the scheming Natalia, her mentor, throws young Pietyr in Kat’s path, this book is all about romance. Never mind why three queens have to battle to the death or how eating poisonous stuff without dying is going to help Katherine survive. Let’s talk about kissing because young adults are all hormonal idiots who want to read about kissing and nothing else. ARGH!!

Arsinoe, Jules, and Mirabella also get a love interest and, sure, some of that creates conflict, but come on! That’s not what it said on the tin. Do we really need another stupid love triangle? Kendare Blake tried to balance the r

omance with female friendships but by leaving the queens’ friends (except Jules) such bland, blank papers, the friendship becomes virtually worthless. Jules and Arsinoe are a great team, but Mirabella’s two friends, although one of them gets a story arc of a sort, are just stand-ins so Mirabella has someone to talk to. It’s a wasted opportunity if I ever saw one. However, Arsinoe’s storyline also contains the most world building and the best characters and development. Low magic, as the islanders call it, was mentioned plenty, although its roots are left unexplored. Joseph and Billy, the only two men with personality, also appear in Arsinoe’s story. This makes me belive that we are meant to like her best – so if the other two die, I won’t be surprised, but it is a rather obvious and cheap way of going about it. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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Finally, at the very end, the plot actually moves foward. The queens each have to demonstrate their gifts in a ceremony that marks the beginning of the year in which they are to kill each other until only one queen remains. And shit goes down during that ceremony! Before that, the powerful houses of Fennbirn scheme around a bit, but because apparently young people are also too dumb to get subtlety, it’s all very obvious and the schemers are not very smart. Again, the villains of this story are also interchangeable. Put a serrated blade in ones hand and icy blond hair on the other, they are still basically the same person.

The ending did have two twists, one of which became sort of predictable while reading the novel. The other, I will happily admit, took me by surprise and actually made me say WTF! But is a two-page shocking twist enough to justify 400 pages of lame romance and a very unbalanced view of three sisters thrown into a terrible situation? I mean, Kendare Blake wrote the book she wanted to write, not one I wanted to read. But if you have a premise so interesting why would you not explore that at all? And if you build a world with so many strange rules, different sets of magics, why not mention anything about that? It makes me think that none of it is actually thought-through, but just window-dressing for some teen romances.

Fennbirn, for example, is super intersting but we only get glimpses of why when the delegations from the mainland arrive. It’s also a much smaller island than I originally thought (there is a cool map in the beginning of the book) because a character can walk, in a few days, over half the island. The magical gifts that the people of Fennbirn posses also don’t make much selse. Elementals are cool, and Naturalists are also interesting. But Poisoners, the only really non-staple fantasy magic, are pretty useless in my eyes. Anyone can learn how to mix a poison and, sure to survive poisoning is useful but what is the point? What’s the greater scheme of things? Why are poisoner queens so powerful when – forgive me – an Elemental can control the elements and a Naturalist might have a seriously vicious animal familiar. How would a battle between such people look? Well, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll have to wait for the sequel because this book ends just before the battle begins.

As many flaws as this story has, I did enjoy the read. I can’t tell you why because when I think about it, everything is wrong, there are plot holes all over the place, the characters mostly aren’t very good and the romances drifted into soap opera territory really quickly. But it was still fun. The chapters are short, I kept being pushed by the hope of learning more about the world, and I did grow to like the queens, although Katherine remains rather pale because she appears so little in the book. Look, it’s better than some other cliché and trope-ridden YA but not by a large margin. There are good ideas here, I only have to wait for the sequel to see if they actually come to anything. And at least, after reading this, I’m ready for some smart science fiction. I shall take delight in the lack of tropey YA love triangles!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

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Angela Slatter – Vigil

I know, I know. I said I’d read anything the wonderful Angela Slatter writes and she warned me herself on Twitter that this was urban fantasy and thus nothing like her fairytale-esque story collections. But a great writer is a great writer and can dabble in many genres. Despite the underlying mythology, I found this to be a bit too much like my generic idea of an Urban Fantasy. It did have original ideas and was a fun read. I’ll just never love Urban Fantasy with all its tropes and clichés as much as I do other subgenres.

vigil1VIGIL
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Verity Fassbinder #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The ribbon was judging me, I knew it.

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

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I don’t read much urban fantasy and I’m probably doing the subgenre very wrong with my prejudices but every time I seem to pick up an UF book, all the tropes are there, the plot feels predictable, and I feel all the more justified in my reasons for avoiding books of that kind. I’m just not into your typical hot and sexy, yet snarky narrator girl who can kick ass despite weighing 45 kg. Please no more mysterious, dark handsome men – be they vampires or werewolves or something else entirely. I’m so tired of pecking orders in packs and covens or even the special supernatural FBI. It’s been done and done to bits, in so many books, TV shows, and movies.

Enter Angela Slatter, a woman who loves tropes. Well, she loves to play with and subvert them, so I knew I wouldn’t mind an Urban Fantasy written by her. She does fall victim to a cliché or two, but there are fresh ideas in here, definitely. It starts with Verity Fassbinder, who is an intriguing protagonist. First of all, I don’t know how old she is. Did I miss it in the book, was it never mentioned, was I just inattentive? Her tone of voice could put her anywhere from her early twenties to her fourties and that’s partly what made me like her but also annoying at times. A character that shifts so easily between “quirky badass young woman” to “seasoned and somewhat cynical adult” is difficult to identify with. It doesn’t matter much for the plot but I did notice and it kept taking me out of the reading flow.

My favorite part about Vigil was the world building and the cases Verity pursues. Those go hand in hand as it is those cases that show us more of the fascinating world. Angela Slatter has turned Brisneyland into a place with actual magic, both light and dark, but mostly dark and scary. Let me say first that the whole introduction of Verity’s past (or rather her father’s past) felt unnecessary and info-dumpy, especially right there at the beginning where we don’t even know who is who yet and what kind of world we are in. I would also like to say right now that if Verity’s (deceased) father surprisingly shows up alive in the sequel, I will throw something against a wall. It feels like that kind of setup and I really hope I’m wrong here.

But back to Verity Fassbinder’s Brisbane. Well, we are in a world with Normals (that’s us, folks) and Weyrd (all the weird shit) and some people who are in-between (Verity). The Weyrd hide from us with glamours and charms and so on and we all live happily side by side. Except when shit goes down, people go missing, or turn up dead – then Verity investigates. In Vigil she has both her hands full. Sirens – who are not what you think, by the way and I loved that twist to pieces – are dying and nobody knows what’s killing them. Turns out it’s not so easy to kill a mythological creature who is practically immortal. In addition, children are disappearing, and a terrifying whirlwind of evil is randomly killing people. Shit is hitting the proverbial fan and Verity has no clue where to start looking for answers. Her investigations are a lot of fun to follow, especially because she has a great relationship with her private taxi driver.

While Verity’s voice and character aren’t completely tropey, they did remind me a lot about the snarky, kickass, superstrong characters we see everywhere. Just make Buffy a bit older, fly her over to Australia, and there you go – it’s a Verity. However, she does have an interesting past, as her father was quite a… let’s say infamous figure in Weyrd circles. She also has a past with her hot vampire boss of course, which I found completely useless. It does absolutely nothing for the plot, and not much for anyone’s character development. They are not awkward with each other, their relationship doesn’t feel all heavy because of their past, it’s just a gimmick to give Bela more personality than he has as just “the boss”. On the bright side, the romance that comes Verity’s way throughout the book, is actually lovely. It’s not front and center, it happens naturally, there’s no big drama and I love both characters involved all the more for that.

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I also loved little nods like Bela’s name. Zvezdomir Tepes – Tepes as in Vlad the Impaler, I’m guessing – and Bela as a nickname after Bela Lugosi. It’s thinking around two small corners like that to create a name that fits the character perfectly, that makes me really happy. The Sirens as well all have appropriate (and lovely) names, as do the Norns. I loved the inclusion of them precisely because they are not werewolves or the usual Urban Fantasy creature. Slatter knows the treasure chest of mythology and folklore is deep and I love her for looking beyond wolves and fanged bloodsuckers. It’s not only Greek mythology you’ll find here, however, and I suspect (and hope) that the next books will show us even more creatures from all around the world.

Plot-wise, this was an engaging read. It moves along quickly, there is barely a moment to catch your breath. I like that Verity’s life feels like a lived-in place, there are people who know her or work with her and this all makes Brisbane feel much more real, more alive.

All things considered, reading this was fun, but there was nothing overwhelming or groundbreaking in it for me. It’s urban fantasy and it does exactly what you expect. Sure, there are cooler creatures that replace werewolves and vampires, the romance is a wonderful background-plot, and Verity is just a good person so it’s nice to follow her around trying to save everyone. The twists at the end were well-executed, but because the three cases get jumbled up, I felt like there was no way for me to guess any of the solution. I always prefer when the clues are there and just so well hidden that I miss them, but technically could have guessed right. So yeah, I’ll read the next book in the series, but I much prefer Angela Slatter when she’s not trying to fit in a subgenre mold but just does her own thing.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Ian Doescher – William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope

I resisted this a long time, suspecting it may be just as cheap a rip-off as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was (never managed to finish that book…), but a friend convinced me that this is not merely a script of the movies made to rhyme but actually a bit more clever than that. While I don’t think this is a masterpiece of literature, it was truly fun to read and it’s a beautiful physical book to have on my shelf.

verily-a-new-hope

William Shakespeare’s STAR WARS:
VERILY, A NEW HOPE
by Ian Doescher

Published by:
Hardback: 174 pages
Series: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars #4
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: It is a period of civil war.

MAY THE VERSE BE WITH YOU!
Return once more to a galaxy far, far away with this sublime retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. ‘Tis a tale told by fretful Droids, full of faithful Wookiees and fearsome Stormtroopers, signifying… pretty much everything.
Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify Rebels and Imperials alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

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I am really glad I bought this book. It came in a lovely slipcase including the other two books in the trilogy (they may be numbered 4 through 6 but who’s the publisher kidding?) and it looks fantastic on my shelf. Apart from the obvious good looks of this book, the content offered some interesting surprises as well.

The story is the one we all know and love. Princess Leia hiding the secret Death Star plans in R2-D2, who is trying to get them to Obi-Wan. Luke Skywalker picks up R2 and C-3PO and gets dragged into this big adventure involving a dark-clad man with a breathing problem, furry co-pilots and a damn sexy Han Solo. There is nothing new here, story wise, so don’t expect any extra scenes or background goodies – although there was a quite funny comment about who shot first (Han did! It’s always been Han!).

So what makes this book worthy of your time is mostly the fun of discovering famous quotes Shakespeare-ified. Whether it’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or Han’s nicknames for Leia, seeing them in wrapped in iambic pentameter actually made me giggle. However, it was Luke that got to me in this book more than he ever did in the movies. I was genuinely surprised by how well his yearning for adventure came through. In the movie, I always thought of Luke as somewhat of a brat, you know, a whiny teenager who wants to leave home to lead his own life, never mind family responsibilities. But in Doescher’s version, Luke’s speeches actually touched me and conveyed in how much pain he is because he’s stuck on Tatooine (which, okay, I get it, it’s a pretty shitty planet).

There are also a few little gimmicks that made the book worthwhile. R2 may still speak droid (“bleep” and so on) but there are a few asides to us, the audience, in English. It’s nothing you didn’t already expect R2 to think but it’s nice to have the little guy actually get to talk in our language for once and voice his annoyance at his companion droid. Chewie is still Chewie and all we get from him is his famous growing/howling noise.

Even if this book weren’t as entertaining as it ended up being, I would have been happy about it just for the illustrations. Like the cover design, they show the characters in immediately recognisable shape, except wearing old-timey garb. Vader especially cracked me up, dressed in his suit (complete with breathing apparatus) plus super fabulous fur coat and puffy sleeves. Seriously, just look at this:

There are many more fantastic illustrations, some of which made me laugh (the Cantina band), others which were more of a nod to Shakespeare than Star Wars (Luke holding a Stormtrooper helmet much like Hamlet’s Yorick skull), and others still that I’m not spoiling for you. Let’s just say, Jabba makes an appearance in all his Shakespearean glory.

The one thing – and this was to be expected – that simply can’t be done properly in this medium, is the space battles. Whenever description is needed, the choir enters to set the stage for us. In the case of the final battle at the Death Star, the author even acknowledges that it’s impossible to reproduce this scene on a stage (or in a written play), so we just have to put a bit more effort into our readerly imagination. That’s totally okay and there was no way it could have been done differently, but of course it also made that last battle feel much less epic. When all you have to go on is the rebel’s comm messages, some randomly shouting “I’m hit” and others coming to their companions’ rescue, that’s just not very exciting if you don’t see the fight. But it was the only real shortcoming of this version of Star Wars, for which I will gladly forgive the author.

I’m sure a lot of work went into these books and they’re not just the money-grabbing merchandise that they first appear to be. There’s not much to discover here that’s new but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of this. I quite liked it.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

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Okay, I can’t resist. Have another picture:

verily-a-new-hope-illustrations

 

 

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Leigh Bardugo – Shadow and Bone

I have resisted for a long time, guys. But you see, the covers and reviews for Leigh Bardugo’s new trilogy – the one with the crow and city silhouette on the cover, are so amazing that I thought I’d try them. Then I heard that they are set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy and, being obsessed with order when it comes to books (if not anything else in life), I had to start at the very beginning. And here I am, neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed. As Bianca said in 10 Things I hate about you: “Can you be just whelmed?”

shadow and bone.jpgSHADOW AND BONE
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: The Grisha #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and the youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches.

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

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The reason I stayed away from this trilogy so long, despite the heavy praise from all over the internet, the (amazing!) fanart, and the thrill of reading a fantasy set in an alternate Russia, well… the reason is I expected it to be another idiotic romance with a love triangle, an oh-so-special and unique girl protagonist, and very little substance. And the thing is, this is a little bit of what I got. But not all.

Alina Starkov and her best friend Mal grow up in an orphanage – their childhood is wrapped up in a short prologue but that prologue was so well written that the bond between these two was immediately believable. The atmosphere, the Fantasy-Russia, the world are all set up just enough to get us by in that prologue. So I threw all my prejudices away and was positively surprised.

Cut to years later, when both Alina and Mal are in the army, Mal as a tracker, Alina as a cartographer. The second brownie point was collected by giving both characters interesting jobs and not making Alina a super fighter, as so many YA romances are trying to do. I don’t want a heroine who can (already) do everything, who is beautiful and skinny, but also secretly strong and a ninja. And probably a witch as well. No, Alina actually doesn’t fit in very well, unlike Mal. He is a natural and constantly surrounded by friends and girls swooning over him. Alina is on the sidelines. Until the Darkling arrives.

The Darkling was both an intriguing and ridiculous figure. First of all, he doesn’t seem to have a name as everyone calls him by his title – the Darkling. With a name/title like that, it doesn’t take much imagination to see him as a potential bad guy. He is the most powerful of the Grisha, the country’s magical army. And, as it turns out, Alina is a Grisha too. The middle part of the book is your average, and sadly unoriginal, girl learning her new powers and getting a makeover scene. Seriously, you’ve all seen it before. Alina comes to the palace, is suddenly treated like the special snowflake she turned out to be, gets pretty dresses and make-up, and flirts heavily with the darkly brooding, mysterious and gorgeous dude that everybody wants. I was both groaning at the familiarity of it all and at the same time delighted because the writing was actually good. So, Leigh Bardugo may have written the exact same story that we know from endless other YA books, but she wrote it well.

Alina herself starts as a great character but then she turns into a passive girl who’s just there to be pretty and special. She rarely does things because she wants to but is mostly passed around and told what to do. This does get better at the end but it doesn’t excuse her blindly trusting a man called Darkling or the first person who is kind of nice to her. My take on this is that it was meant to be her story arc – to turn from the passive, naive, lonely girl into a stronger woman with agency. I hope I’m not wrong.

My favorite parts suffered in favor of the sort-of love triangle. It is not as infuriating as most love triangle and it’s resolved pretty quickly – a refreshing change. But what really interested me was the world building, the way magic is used, the legends and myths of this place. The book has a great map at the beginning, showing the Fold, a sort of ocean rift in the country, full of terrible creatures. I want to know EVERYTHING about this! We do get glimpses and hints here and there and my guess is that Bardugo is saving the rest for the later books, so I’ll forgive her for telling me so little about it. But seriously, guys, check out this map. I totally love it.

shadow and bone map

The other interesting aspects are the magic, as I said, and social norms. Most things I just kept assuming, but I’d really like to know officially how this world works, more about the war that left Alina and Mal orphaned, more about the world at large. If it hadn’t been for training sessions and beauty regimens, there would have been time for that, but I get the feeling more and more that YA authors write books to become movies. Visually, there is a lot going on here and I think – with all the beautiful characters and the stunning imagery – this would actually make a good movie.

Plot-wise, the make-over bit is followed by an obvious plot twist (seriously, how could anyone not see this coming), and then things get better again. Alina and Mal’s friendship, although the two are separated for large parts of the novel, was definitely a strong point of the book. The romance wasn’t all that romantic, but if I can choose between embarassingly flowery love scenes (looking at you, Sarah J. Maas) or this understated love-from-friendship, I’ll take the latter any day.

The ending was both satisfying and frustrating – can you see a pattern here, do you understand why this book left me “whelmed”? I really liked the way the story ended, except it didn’t really end. I sort trilogies into two rough categories. The ones where each book tells its own story, but the trilogy tells a larger story. And the ones where a trilogy is just one story, chopped up into three physical books. The Grisha trilogy seems to be one large story where each novel is just a chapter. I am okay with this because not only has the trilogy been completed, Shadow and Bone also ends in a way that makes me want to pick up the next instalment. There’s no evil cliffhanger but things are far from resolved. So, fine, I’ll go along with it and hope the next book leaves out the high school-like court drama.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good-ish

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