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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Make sure to check out the other stops on the Steel Prince blog tour:

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Overhyped but a lot of fun: Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning

Ah, here it is again. The dreaded post-hype disappointment of what is generally a very good book. Roanhorse’s debut novel has been one of the buzziest publications of 2018, so despite my dislike for Urban Fantasy, I decided to give it a go. I was well entertained and would sum this up as “a lot of fun” but I don’t really understand what the hype is about or why it’s supposed to be such a groundbreaking work of fiction.

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Ebook: 287 pages
Series: The Sixth World #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The monster has been here.

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.

Maggie Hoskie is, apart from her cultural heritage, your average Urban Fantasy heroine. Instead of the depressed, alcoholic and antisocial private detective, you get a depressed, antisocial monsterhunter with superpowers. She’s not the sassy kind of UF heroine that permeates so many werewolf-and-vampire stories, but I still didn’t find her to be very interesting as a character. Dealing with the consequences of her powers and things that happened in her past makes her multi-layered, sure, but again, nothing I haven’t seen before. Doesn’t every Urban Fantasy heroine have demons in her past, people she’d like to forget, or people she’d like to meet again? It’s no less intriguing for having done a million times before, but it has been done a million times before.

So while I didn’t dislike Maggie, I also didn’t particularly like her. She is stubborn to a fault, she is smart, but sometimes overestimates her own cleverness, she mistrusts everyone (which is not a bad thing given her occupation). She doesn’t let anyone get close to her but at the same time yearns for family and a place to belong. I may not have liked her all that much, but she did make for a compelling main character and I’d much rather have someone like her than a Mary Sue. All this  is quite different from how I felt about Kai, the mysterious, handsome medicine man who travels with her. Again, it’s obvious from the start that he is the main romantic interest. These two are thrown together by circumstance, have to work closely with each other and that means going into dangerous situations, saving each others lives and – naturally – growing closer. Again, I have nothing against that and I adored Kai whose sense of humor brought some light into this rather dark story. But it is still just a tired old trope – a well-done way, absolutely, but nothing new.

The writing was good, but  nothing groundbreaking (you see a pattern yet?). The exact same goes for the plot. Everything needed for a fun romp is there. The characters are fleshed-out enough to care about them, the pacing is on point, the things that happen are thrilling and keep you turning pages, the fights had me at the edge of my seat. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s basically Buffy in a cool new setting with cool new monsters. There’s even a plot twist at the end (which I found to be quite well done) and then a bit of a cliffhanger (which I didn’t like so much).

Now the world-building is where it’s at, as it is the only aspect of this book that I found to be truly fresh and original. Based on Native American mythology, you get to read about monsters you (probably) haven’t read about before. No werewolves or vampires in sight! In fact, because the Big Water has destroyed most of the US, Navajo culture is now dominant, so every person Maggie and Kai meet, every place they visit, has a distinctive flair to it that was incredible fun to explore. There is still so much to discover because although the groundwork has been laid – the Big Water destroyed most of the US, Dinétah rose and with it, its gods and monsters, resources are scarce, it’s all very Mad Max: Fury Road but different enough to be exciting! We know some people are born with clan powers which can be anything from mind reading to super strength, we know there are witches and immortals… Roanhorse gave me just enough to always make me want more but she also always gave me the feeling that, yes, there is more and she knows it. Whether that’s true or not, it feels like the author has her world fully planned out, like she has a bigger plan that she’s following with the series. Dinétah is definitely a world I want to see more of, so despite disagreeing with the hype, I will probably read the sequel.

I realize I made this sound worse than it is. I’m nitpicking because I tried really hard to understand the hype and simply can’t. Apart from the setting and the characters, I found nothing in this book to be new or groundbreaking. But reading it was actually a lot of fun. You can breeze right through it, be thoroughly entertained, and then want more of the same. I wouldn’t put it on an awards ballot but I would put it into my friends’ hands. Because who doesn’t like a fun thrill ride through a post-apocalyptic world, hunting monsters and discovering mysteries?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Beauty and the Really Nice Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

Oh, how wonderful is the sense of relief when you fear that you are stumbling into a sterotype-laden YA insta-romance and it turns out you discovered something beautiful and original. Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast may not be perfect, but it did a great job at subverting most of the tropes that retellings and YA romances tend to use.

A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY
by Brigid Kemmerer

Published by: Bloomsbury YA, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
Series: A Curse so Dark and Lonely #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: There is blood under my fingernails.

Fall in love, break the curse. 
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom. 
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

This could have gone so very wrong. It could have been just another tale of a pretty girl and an arrogant prince who is reformed by her love, set in a shiny castle with or without magical servants. And while A Curse so Dark and Lonely ticks all the boxes it needs to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it has such a nice layer of originality to it. And, most important, it has characters that stand out, that aren’t just cardboard cutouts saying “prince” and “beauty”.

Harper lives in DC and is snatched away by a strange man who wanted to kidnap another girl, but Harper intervened and now she’s the lucky gal who gets to find out there are other worlds than hers. She arrives at the castle, is introduced to Prince Rhen and his loyal guardsman Grey, and she also learns pretty soon what is going on. There is a curse on Rhen – one of the things I liked most in this book! – that makes him relive the same season until he manages to fall in love with a girl and have her return that love. There is a Groundhog Day vibe about Rhen, the total despair of having tried everything, having killed himself in numerous ways, only to wake up to the same hell again and again. I thought as curses go, this one is much more terrifying than the original, because it makes Rhen hope over and over again that this time, really this time will be different and he’ll break the curse. He gets no closure, no way to accept that he’ll live as a beast and come to terms with it. He can’t even kill himself to end it all.

I loved Rhen as a character, even more than I loved Harper. The one thing that annoyed the shit out of me though was that Harper is the perfect cliché of the “special girl” who is “not like the others”. I mean COME ON! Rhen has tried his luck breaking the curse with over 300 girls, yet Harper is the only one to stand out? Not only is it highly unlikely that she is the very first to talk back, try to escape, want to go home and nothing to do with him and his castle – but what bothered me even more was that those “other girls” are presented as somehow less worthy or valuable because they enjoyed dressing up in the beautiful gowns provided by the castle, or eating the delicious food. I don’t believe for a second that 300 girls taken from our modern world would all just sit down meekly and play dress-up all day and even if they did, that doesn’t make them in any way less than Harper. Liking stereotypically girly things is not bad! Stop writing fiction where only girls who are “not like the others” are the good ones who get the fairy tale ending.
To me, Haper’s actions were not special at all – they were relatable! Sure, she may be braver than your average girl and that’s great, but what she does or plans to do is not special at all, it’s logical and understandable.

Let’s stick with Harper for a moment and the other things I enjoyed about this book. The pros far outweigh the cons for me, so I am willing to forgive the author for putting down girly girls. Harper is also a wonderfully proactive protagonist. Instead of sitting around waiting for Rhen to dictated her day, she gets up and gets shit done! It may not always be the right shit or even smart shit but at least she does stuff. Harper is the kind of girl who may think to herself while she’s stuck in this magical world, she may as well make herself useful and spend her day doing good and learning things. She also finds out very soon what Rhen has to do to break the curse (because it’s never a big secret) and although she’s convinced it’s not going to happen because she finds Rhen arrogant, she is aware of it.

This supposed arrogance that Harper always sees in Rhen was another thing I didn’t quite get. There is no moment where he comes across as anything but kind and worried for his people, maybe a bit reserved and careful with strangers, but never ever arrogant or mean. I fear that the writing is to blame for this disconnect between what is said and what is shown in the story. The writing in general  was simplistic and at times annoyingly repetitive. I stopped counting the moments when characters were “just a breath away from touching” or when Rhen put a strand of loose hair behind Harper’s ear. I have nothing against these moments, against the tension they create, but using the exact same words to describe them makes them feel a lot less special.
And again, the writer does a good job showing us what happens and what the characters feel. But somehow, the characters themselves tell us things are totally different from what we just read ourselves. There is no reason for Harper to dislike Rhen at all other than that it’s convenient for a Beauty and the Beast kind of plot.

Another bonus point for this book: Harper has cerebral palsy and for me, this was the first time reading about a character like her. As Harper states herself, she is rather lucky and her life isn’t too restricted. Other people with cerebral palsy can have difficulty talking or suffer  involuntary muscle contractions, yet others can live without much restriction and simply have a limb or two that doesn’t grow the way it should. Harper falls into the latter category. She walks with a bit of a limp because one of her legs is affected.
I was unsure for the longest time on how I felt about this. On the one hand, I would have liked to read about a heroine with a disability that actually prevents her from doing a lot of things we able-bodied people take for granted. Because there aren’t enough protagonists like that and because I’d really like to learn more about it and put myself in someone else’s shoes through fiction. So giving Harper nothing but a slight limp felt like a cop-out. On the other hand, who the hell am I to say how disabled the disabled protagonist is supposed to be? And I definitely think it is better to include a disabled heroine like Harper  than not to write about disability at all.
So, after stewing over this for a while, I am really happy that I got to read about a girl with cerebral palsy. Especially because Harper doesn’t let it hold her back. She climbs things, she rides horses, she runs when she thinks she needs to – never once thinking that there is anything she can’t do because of her leg. Her agency is a delight to read and I wish more YA protagonists were like her!

The plot was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Harper taking action, although I felt that certain things at the end were a little convenient. I can’t say anything withouth spoiling but there was one instance where the author took the easy way out because anything else would have been really difficult to write (I get it, I wouldn’t want to have to think my way out of this), but it still felt reather cheap. As for the plot twist – it definitely came as a surprise but it felt very much like a quick way to set up a series rather than telling a standalone story. I have no idea if Brigid Kemmerer already has a plan as to where the series is going. If she does, I’ll be happy to follow her characters and find out what’s in store for them (I have grown quite fond of Harper, Rhen and Grey), but if there is no plan other than “write a sequel” I worry that the next book won’t be anywhere near as good as this one was.

There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll definitely be reading A Heart so Fierce and Broken (set to release in early 2020). Despite my nitpicks, this book was a lot of fun to read, the romance worked pretty well and I’m just so happy to have a protagonist with agency and a cast of characters with personality for a change. Well done.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A modern Pride and Prejudice: Ibi Zoboi – Pride

I am easy to bait when it comes to P&P retellings but I also approach every retelling very carefully. Not only because Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books but also because it’s very, very hard to translate into a different era. Different settings, fantasy worlds – that could all work, but setting a story for which societal norms (and restrictions for women) are so vital in a modern period is a really difficult feat. I’m so happy Ibi Zoboi managed to do that really well, even if I didn’t love everything about this book.

PRIDE
by Ibi Zoboi

Published: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

Zuri Benitez lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and her neighbourhood is her entire pride. She wants things to remain just as they are, to hang out with the people from her block, to eat her mother’s traditional food, to enjoy the block parties and to play basketball with her friends. Already, things are changing because her elder sister Janae spent her first year off in college, and Zuri is applying to colleges as well. She really doesn’t want to let go of the world she knows and she has no interest in the wider world. When the Darcys – a wealthy black family – move into the mansion across the street, Zuri sees them as even more of a threat to her home. So she is determined not to like them, even before she knows anything about them.

Setting Pride and Prejudice in modern Brooklyn was the one thing Ibi Zoboi did really – and I mean really – well. All the groundwork is there. Ainsley and Darius are brothers (so you get two Darcys), the big reveal about Warren (Wickham) was really well done, and I enjoyed how Zuri and Darius slowly get to like each other more over the course of the story. All of this could have gone so very wrong. Pride and Prejudice, after all, is based on the fact that women of a certain status don’t work, so sometimes their only option for a safe life is to marry rich. Here, the stakes are obviously not as high – this is about finding a nice boyfriend and if it didn’t work out for the Benitez sisters, their lives and livelihood wouldn’t literally be threatened. Their lives also don’t magically become easier by having a rich boyfriend.

The one thing that I imagine is the hardest to retell is the scandalous reveal of a Wickham/Warren’s character. It was such a horrible thing in the original Pride and Prejudice because society was very different. For an unmarried couple to be together without a chaperone could have dire consequences for the entire family. Obviously, this wouldn’t work today. So Ibi Zoboi had to think of something that would also mean a threat to a young woman’s reputation, and she did it! She found a way. Again, the repercussions are mild compared to 19th century England, but it worked beautifully. It showed Warren for the prick he is and it showed the negative impact of his actions on a young woman’s life. I thought this was rather cleverly done and almost cheered when I read that part (not cheered because of what happened, obviously, but because I wanted to applaud the author).

Now my biggest problem with this book – and sadly one that drags my rating down a lot – is that I really didn’t like Zuri. She has none of the qualities that make Lizzie Bennet so likable. Sure, for the story to work, Zuri has to be prejudiced, but I hated how she was so completely narrow-minded about everything. It was like everything she didn’t know was automatically bad, and everything that didn’t fit her narrow idea of her perfect neighbourhood, wasn’t worth her time. Of course it made the story work but it also made her a character I didn’t want to root for. Zuri doesn’t just worry that people who are different will change her world, but she immediately judges others based on their clothing style or because they use proper grammar. If they’re not black enough in her opinion, then she doesn’t like them and doesn’t even give them a chance to prove that they’re nice people despite not looking or talking the way she wants them to.

The other characters were all rather flat. Each of them gets one characteristic and that’s it. Zuri’s younger sisters Layla and Kayla are boy-crazy, Marisol is all about money (an interesting change to stuck-up Mary in the original), and Janae is nice. Ainsley doesn’t have much personality at all and Warren is simply Zuri’s perfect “boy from the hood” without any depth. I did like Darius who at least shows different sides of his character at different points in the story. But even then, Zuri is suddenly pissed that he’s not exactly how she pinned him down, but actually has layers and doesn’t always behave the same. I mean, who behaves the same when visiting their grandma as opposed to a teen party? I thought it was nice seeing some depth in Darius’ character but Zuri, narrow-minded and closed-off to everything new as she is, didn’t.

Another thing I enjoyed was the added cultural aspect. Zuri’s block is like a big family, comprised of people from different places with different cultures and traditions. Zuri’s relationship to Madrina – a sort of surrogate superstitous grandmother who Zuri goes to for advice – was lovely and added an original layer to this retelling. I actually would have loved to see more of that, to understand why Zuri holds on so desperately to her home and doesn’t want it to change in any way.

The writing wasn’t my case at all. There were so many instances in which we are told why Zuri loves her block so much – the block parties, the way she talks with other residents, how everyone dresses, etc. – but are rarely shown. The prose itself is simple, without flourishes or anything particularly noteworthy. I also had some trouble with the dialogue which switches back and forth between Zuri’s preferred slang, something she uses to gauge in other people to see if they’re “hood” enough, and regular English. While it’s clear that the Darcys don’t use slang to set them apart culturally from Zuri and her hood, I didn’t quite understand why Zuri and her family aren’t consistent in the way they speak.

Zuri is also a poet and the story is interspersed with her poetry about life in Bushwick, the new rich kids moving in next door, dealing with change, and everything else that this book is about. I’m sad to say I wasn’t a big fan of the poetry itself. Poetry is very hit or miss for me anyway and that is no fault of the author! I usually can’t put my finger on why I like a particular poem and not another, it’s just a gut feeling for me. In this case, I didn’t really like any of Zuri’s poems. They had no emotional impact on me but, but because they are all short, they also didn’t bother me all that much.

As for the ending (if you know Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know at least one aspect of it), I found it a little weird and out of the blue. It may be clear from the beginning that, no matter how she fights it, Zuri will have to deal with change sooner or later. She does want to go to college and that means leaving her home behind at least for most of the year. But the way the story actually ends bummed me out a little. It wasn’t a bad ending at all, I just found it surprising and didn’t get enough time to process it until the book was just over.
So, the good and the not-so-good balance each other out. I definitely enjoyed reading this but it wasn’t groundbreaking or something I’d recommend to everyone. For fans of Jane Austen who want to see a beloved story set in modern Brooklyn, this is a fun story. For people looking for a good romance with multi-layered characters… not so much.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

With a cover and synopsis like that, who could resist this book? I personally was hoping for some fun, light entertainment with a little bit of romance and a lot of bickering. Plus an epic road trip through Europe. While I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the beginning, it still delivered on most of those points and had me giggling for a few hours.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017
Hardcover: 513 pages
Series: Guide #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Henry “Monty” Montague is a scoundrel who gets into trouble very easily but has a lot more difficulty getting back out again. His relationship with his father is strained, to say the least. As a bisexual young man in the 18th century, his escapades – be they with young men or women – are not something his father approves of, especially since he was to inherit the estate. Until the baby brother came along, that is. Now Monty has one last chance to prove he can be a responsible adult – a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and, much to their dismay, a chaperone who is to show them the wonders of all the greatest cities on the continent.

It’s hard to dislike Monty, despite his really being an irresponsible, ungrateful young rake. He cares about very little in the world (mostly himself, his secret love Percy, and copious amounts of alcohol), but you can tell right from the start that he has a good heart and just needs to grow up a bit. The Tour seems just the right time for that. While things start out pretty much as planned (by his father, that is), Monty gets into deep trouble pretty soon. He, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity don’t even reach the halfway point of their journey when they are set upon by highwaymen, have to flee, discover truths about each other that they didn’t even suspect, and must work together as a team to get out of this adventure alive!

We’re not courting trouble. Flirting with it at most.

This book had everything I had hoped for at the beginning. Quippy banter, a budding romance between Monty and Percy, lots of fun adventures and not-so-fun danger. Things dragged a bit when the group reached Spain and begin an entirely new adventure, but because the characters were so lovely, I didn’t mind too much. Percy’s being dark-skinned may not be an issue for Monty or Felicity, but 18th century Europe has other ideas and it is frequently shown that even though he is an English gentleman, Percy faces a lot of challenges because of the color of his skin. Felicity, in turn, is sent to an finishing school from where she is supposed to emerge a skilled young lady. Skilled, that is, in the arts of singing, stitching, and other stuff she doesn’t have the least interest in. Monty is just Monty, wanting to drink and party and sleep with beautiful people. In the beginning, at least.

When someone close to him is revelealed to suffer from a disability, Monty’s thinking slowly changes. He realises what’s important in life, and who he wishes to be loyal to. As light as it may be, as funny as his scrapes are, this is truly Monty’s coming-of-age story and he doesn’t grow up all at once. It’s a slow process with more mistakes to make and misunderstandings to clear up. But I was very happy to see that, by the end, Monty had indeed grown. He’ll perhaps never be a gentleman of utmost perfection but he learns to do the right thing, and to consider the feelings of others – especially those he loves.

While the writing in this book wasn’t very special, I adored the dialogues and the more romantic scenes. Monty and Percy have a particular relationship that makes it maybe even harder to start something more than friendship than if they had serendipitously met on Monty’s Tour. Having grown up together, often sleeping in the same bed, sharing almost everything with each other, there is already so much intimacy between them, that it seems like such a small step to just fall in love. Mackenzi Lee did a beautiful job of letting these two find their way to each other slowly, through many obstacles, and start something more substantial than one of Monty’s flings.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I am so excited that there will be a second part following Felicity’s further adventures. She started out as an annoying side character but grew on me so much that I consider her as one of the gang. By the end, she is probably the most kick-ass of the trio (Hermione, anyone?).

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

Kerstin Gier – The Silver Trilogy (Silber)

In times of emotional turmoil, I turn to a certain type of book. Either it’s well-loved favorites like Harry Potter, or if I want something new, I go for books I know are easy to read, easy to stomach, definitely end well, and have plenty of silly drama about who goes to the prom with whom. Kerstin Gier delivers exactly that, and while her Silver trilogy is not nearly as good as the time travel books she wrote a while ago, they entertained and distracted me from life in just the right way.

THE SILVER TRILOGY (Dream a Little Dream, Dream On, Just Dreaming)
by Kerstin Gier

Published by: Fischer, 2013-2015
Hardcovers: 413, 416, 464 pages
Series: Silver #1-3
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The dog was snuffling at my bag. 

Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv’s dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she’s in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.

The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They’re classmates from her new school in London, the school where she’s starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what’s really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn’t possibly know–unless they actually are in her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute…

Since I read all three books back to back, I decided to review them as one complete story instead of doing single reviews per volume.

Liv and her sister are used to moving around, living in all sorts of places of the world, but never living there for long. Moving, starting new schools, making and losing friends is nothing new to them. Until their mother promises to stay settled in a charming cottage in England where she can do her job at Oxford University and the girls can finally have a proper home. Except they never make it to that cottage. Instead Liv’s mother wants to move in with her new boyfriend and his two children. Additionally, weird stuff happens in Liv’s dreams. She recognises people from her school whose names she doesn’t even know, she learns things she never heard before in dreams, and they turn out to be facts… Things are definitely not quite right.

The strength of this story is definitely the family interactions and how the characters grow into their new home, which of course has very little to do with this being a fantasy story. More on that later. At first, Liv and her little sister Mia are strongly opposed to their new siblings. Grayson seems constantly preoccupied with his phone and Florence only remains posh and composed until she finds out she’ll have to give up some living space for the new girls’ nanny! Sure, all the characters are big walking, talking clichés but there is no doubt that the way they are pushed on each other makes them each grow and even come to care for each other. It may just be my current situation, but I almost teared up a little when these four behaved like proper siblings.

Initially, I was in it for the fantasy aspects, especially because they have to do with dreams. However, that part is never really developed and the plot strays and meanders and doesn’t ever quite find its footing. In the first book, Liv is trying to help out her new brother Grayson and his friends combat an evil demon whom they accidentally summoned last Halloween. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the second book revolves around something completely different and the fact that they can all control their dreams (to some degree) is more of an added superpower that doesn’t do all that much. In the third book, Kerstin Gier seems to have realised that the trilogy is only held together by the real-world teenage drama rather than her fantasy side plot, and tried to unify things a little. It didn’t really work out but at least the big bad of the third book is truly terrifying and made for some suspenseful moments.

This is also the story of Liv growing up, discovering first love, and making a home for herself. The romance was done pretty well (no love triangles, yay!) although some conflicts between the love birds seemed incredibly forced, just to get things moving a little. Again, in a different state of mind, my opinion of these books would probably be way harsher, but as a light read in between meatier books, this is just the thing to fall into.

There is also a sub-plot that’s basically Gossip Girl. Liv and Mia’s new school has someone called Secrecy who seems to know everything about everyone and posts embarrassing and hurtful things on her blog. She reveals secrets, discusses (in not very flattering ways) people’s clothing style or weight, even makes remarks about very personal or very painful things such as whether a couple has had sex yet (and if no, why not), or who someone is going to date next, now that their boyfriend died! Lifting the secret of who Secrecy is falls mostly into Mia’s care and while it is revealed, it only happens at the end of the last book.

Look, it’s no Ruby Red trilogy, but it is quite a bit of fun with hilariously overdrawn characters, some romance, and a lovely family. I liked it.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

I find it quite interesting how different the German and English covers are. The German ones seeme geared at a younger audience while the English ones can’t stop the girl-in-a-pretty-dress trope. I do like the keyhole though.

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Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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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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