King Arthur Secret Society: Tracy Deonn – Legendborn

This was the group book for the #mythothon readathon that’s running throughout the month of April. I had seen this cover around, many people have recommended the book and I think it might even end up on a Lodestar shortlist (we’ll find out soon!). I’m not super excited about King Arthur retellings, but as this book focuses on other things, that turned out to be a plus for me.

legendbornLEGENDBORN
by Tracy Deonn

Published: Margaret K. McElderberry, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 54 minutes
Series: Legendborn #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.

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Bree Matthews is a young Black student who gets to go to UNC-Chapel Hill in an Early College program. Her very first night on campus turns out to be rather exciting, not because of some student party (although there is that) but because she witnesses things that shouldn’t be possible. Selwin Kane, a young and decidedly too handsome student, seems to be wiping people’s memories. Oh and let’s not forget that shimmery magical demon-thing that tries to attack people and is shot down by another student’s arrow – because who doesn’t carry bow and arrow with them when they go to a party? Needless to say, it’s all a bit much for Bree.
Add to this craziness that her mother died only a few months earlier, she seems to be the only Black girl on campus, and even her best friend notices that she hasn’t been the same since her mom’s death.

This novel was not what I expected. Sure, on the surface it’s your very average YA demon hunting secret society book (Clare’s Shadowhunters come to mind, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when we’re looking at TV). Sure, the secret society is based on the legend of King Arthur, which is new (at least to me), but if that had been all this story was about, I would have been mostly bored and unimpressed. But Tracy Deonn is a Black writer who put a lot of her own experience into this book and it shows.

Not only does Bree deal with the most casual and blatant racism you can imagine, she’s also dealing with grief. Except she doesn’t know how to deal with it and that makes her feel incredibly real and lovable. These were my two favorite aspects of Legendborn but it takes a while to get there. The racism is there right from the start but Tracy Deonn doesn’t just show us the way the university’s dean or a random cop assume things about Bree based on nothing but the color of her skin, she goes much further, exploring the past and the history of the college. Whether it’s a slave owner’s statue that’s standing right there on campus or Bree’s family history, I loved how we got to see different aspects of the Black experience. That sounds strange because, as you can probably imagine, that experience isn’t exactly a nice one, but I hope you know what I mean. It fleshed out the world and gave the characters more depth, it made everything feel a bit more real.

My second favorite part – the way loss and grief is talked about and handled – didn’t appeal to me immediately. In fact, at the very start of the book, I must have missed somehow that Bree’s mother’s death wasn’t all that long ago. I was a bit surprised that Bree kept thinking about herself as a numb person who shuts out all emotions because she was After-Bree and her mother’s death had impacted her so much. I’m sure it was inattention on my part, but I kind of thought her mother had been dead for several years, so I didn’t get why the pain still felt so raw to her.
But I got it after a while and that’s when I started appreciating how Deonn described Bree’s pain and the way she tries to handle it – by shutting it out mostly. Although no person feels the same when they lose someone, I did understand Bree. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that managed to make me cry.

But this book isn’t only some exploration of difficult themes, quite the opposite. On a surface level, it’s an adventure Urban Fantasy story about demon hunters and magic. Plus, the obligatory teen romance.
The whole secret society of the Order was probably the weakest aspect of this book. The society is comprised of people who can trace their bloodlines back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. One special person is “the Merlin” and he can use magic like nobody else. Other than hunting and killing the demons that occasionally invade our world, these people do what most other secret societies do. They make sure they have the power and keep it, they hate outsiders, they’re mostly racist and classist, and they live by strict rules that includes oaths and use of magic and a lot of other stuff.
My problem with it was that this particular Order could have been based on anything other than King Arthur and it still would have worked. Sure, each knight’s Scion is granted some special abilities based on what the original knight was like but that doesn’t really have any impact on the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fun to learn about how the Order works, it just doesn’t have much to do with the legend of King Arthur other than the names and/or titles. So depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up this book, you might be in for a disappointment.

I don’t have too much more to say about this book. I enjoyed the characters, although the side characters could definitely be more fleshed-out. Bree was a fantastic protagonist, some of the other more important characters also felt believable and three-dimensional, but the side characters were mostly cardboard cutouts who only existed to further the plot whenever needed.
The plot wasn’t as twisty as I was led to believe by other reviewers, but there are a couple of good surprises in there. I didn’t see either of them coming at all, and that’s exactly how I like it. The main antagonist of this book was a bit on the nose. This moustache-twirling one-track-mind baddie could have been done better, but as this is only book one in a trilogy/series, the true villain is still afoot. Maybe they’ll have a bit more to offer.
The writing was enjoyable and the book was quick to read. The ending almost felt a bit too rounded off. Sure, there are some questions left open, I see a love triangle coming up (hopefully, I’m wrong), and there’s still evil to fight. But this part of the story is done, we get a satisfying conclusion and I am quite happy with how things ended. I don’t see myself jumping on the second part of this series but I absolutely want to read more by Tracy Deonn.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

They Grow Up So Fast: Tamora Pierce – In the Hand of the Goddess

Although it wasn’t without its issues, I had a lot of fun re-reading Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in Tamora Pierce’s beloved Song of the Lioness quartet. When I jumped right into the second book, I found it even more readable than the first – meaning I would have finished it in one sitting, had life not interrupted me. But the title for this review is only half in jest. The other half is honest criticism for the crazy pacing.

in the hand of the goddessIN THE HAND OF THE GODDESS
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1984
Paperback: 264 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.

Disguised as a boy, Alanna of Trebond becomes a squire, to none other than the prince of the realm. But Prince Jonathan is much more to Alanna; he is her ally, her best friend, and one of the few who knows that she’s really a girl. Now it will take all of Alanna’s awesome skill, strength, and growing magical powers to protect him from the mysterious evil sorcerer who is bent on his destruction, and hers!
Here continues the story of Alanna, a young woman bound for glory who is willing to fight against enormous odds for what she believes in.

The story picks up about a year after the first book ended and mostly keeps up the series’ breakneck pace. But the writing has matured a bit and Tamora Pierce tried out a few new things in this book. First of all, she takes more time describing individual scenes, making the reading experience more immersive and the world of Tortall a bit more vivid. Secondly, we get glimpses into other POVs! I was positively surprised that we read about the antagonist early on. Although it was obvious from the first book, until his POV we didn’t really get a confirmation that Roger, Duke of Conté is the bad guy who’s trying to take the throne. As villains go, he’s not the most original but he has a lot of patience, I have to give him that.

The story opens with Alanna meeting the Goddess who promptly gives her a magical rock pendant (let’s all wonder if that will be important later). We are also introduced to Alanna’s new feline companion, Faithful, who stole my heart immediately because… well he’s a cat and he’s probably magical and also super smart. And then it’s back to Alanna aka Squire Alan’s life which still consists of training and doing squire-y things but now also includes potential romance.

And this is where my problems with the book begin. Alanna may be a great protagonist for kids to identify with because she is defined purely by her wish to become a knight. Otherwise, she’s pretty blank which makes certain decisions of hers difficult to understand. When George, her thieving friend, declares his love for her, for example, she says she doesn’t want romance and isn’t interested in anything other than being a knight and going on adventures. Okay, that’s cool, I guess. But then a second love intrested comes out and Alanna just goes for it. Towards the end of the book, there is one little dialogue that explores this behaviour and makes more sense of it, but up until that moment, Alanna just comes across as very inconsistent. And because everything in this series is so simplistic, this very real and believable behaviour of a teenage girl just doesn’t work.

The plot is similarly episodic and fast-paced as it was in the first book. Years pass between chapters without it every really feeling like a lot of time has passed. Alanna and her friends even go to war briefly, she’s dreading the upcoming Ordeal – a sort of exam after which she will be a proper knight – and her friends’ reaction when she reveals that she is not, in fact, Alan of Trebond, but Alanna. Things move along so fast that I couldn’t tell you what age Alanna was when they went to war, or when she had her first sexual experience. It’s all a big jumble.
I did enjoy that Alanna’s twin brother, Thom, becomes a more important character in this book. And I suspect he will become even more important in the next instalment. He may even have been the most interesting character here because he is so changed from the 11-year-old boy we met in the first book.

So I didn’t find this book in any way groundbreaking and the writing, although improved, is still very flawed. But I will continue the series because now is when things get really interesting. With Alanna’s training over, it’s anyone’s guess where she will got, what adventures she’ll encounter, and whether (and with whom) she’ll end up if indeed she chooses a romantic partner after all.
I’d recommend this for people looking for a (very) quick and light read without any real surprises but with characters that are easy to like. Bonus points for Faithful, the cat. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

So Begins the Song of the Lioness: Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure

I think I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when I first read this book but I sadly never continued the series. There aren’t many things about it I still remembered but one was that it was the first fantasy book I read that mentions menstruation and the second was that I really liked it. No matter how long it’s been, I still want to finish the Song of the Lioness series and in order to refresh my memory, I thought I’d simply re-read the first book. Well done, me!

ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1983
Paperback: 274 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book. 

From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins – one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

There’s something very comforting about picking up a childhood favorite, a book so clearly written for kids that it just lets you relax while you read it. I mean, in the first few pages, Alanna and her twin brother Thom are introduced, decide they are going to switch places because Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to be a sorcerer (their father had different plans) and they see a vision in the fire of the local sorceress promising adventures to come. A lot happens very fast and there is little description but tons of dialogue.

So Alanna cuts her hair, blackmails/convinces Coram, her blacksmith/swordsmaster, to keep her secret and help her out once they’re in the capital, and the adventure begins. Something that fascinated me was how the writing matures over the course of the book, though. Where things happen very, very quickly at first – Alanna arrives at the castle, meets her fellow students, immediately makes an enemy and some friends – things take a bit longer later on. Time moves quickly at first, almost like a montage of Alanna’s everyday life as a page, but then, gradually, more and more scenes come up that the readers can fall into a bit more. These moments let us get to know the characters better and experience Alanna’s emotions more fully. It’s almost like the book starts extremely fast-paced to keep the (young) reader interested and then, once we’re hooked, slowly begins to take its time exploring the world and characters and plot. To me this meant that I enjoyed reading more and more the further along I got and that’s definitely something I can get behind.

I also noticed that the lack of flowery description meant my own brain had to work harder and I had to use my imagination if I wanted to “see” what someone’s clothes looked like or how a room was furnished. Turns out, I really missed that! Fantasy books these days are so well thought out, with perfect world building and clear rules that they often leave little for the readers’ imaginations to fill in. Tamora Pierce’s book is the opposite. You get a character’s hair and eye color, their general body shape (tall, short, muscular, skinny, etc.) but other than that, it’s all up to you what people and places look like.

The one thing I had remembered from my first read and which struck me again this time was that this children’s fantasy book mentions menstruation and just… deals with it. Alanna is pretending to be a boy, which is hard enough when the boys go swimming, but it gets even harder when her monthy cycle begins. What with the twins’ disinterested father and dead mother, nobody told Alanna that her body would change this way, so her first reaction is panic and shame. A trusted woman then explains to her in very simple an straightforward terms what’s up and how Alanna can deal with it. Alanna may be outraged at the annoyance her period poses but she takes it in stride, just like she does all the challenges her life as a page poses.

This book doesn’t really have a big overarching plot but rather sets up everything for the rest of the series. Alanna goes through the rigorous training to become a page, then a squire, then a knight. She makes some friends – among them the charming King of Thieves George, the Prince Jonathan, and her fellow students. She also has to use her magic, altough she doesn’t like it. Which adds another fantasy element to this secondary world novel. Although the magic isn’t explained super well, I love that it’s immediately clear that it has a cost. When a terrible sickness sweeps over the capital, the healers are soon exhausted and get sick themselves because using their magic for healing takes a toll on their own bodies.

My Thoughts Literally!: Series Review: The Song of the Lioness Quartet by  Tamora Pierce

One aspect that I definitely didn’t notice or think about when I read this as a teenager was how the whole “girl pretending to be a boy” thing would feel if a trans person read it. This is a well-known and beloved trope that creates tension and sometimes funny moments, but Alanna is often annoyed at her changing body, her breasts growing, her period starting, and expresses that she’d rather not be a girl because it complicates everything. She is then told in no uncertain terms that she has to accept her body as it is and just learn to live with it. Tamora Pierce probably didn’t have any big thoughts about trans kids reading this because, well, I don’t believe that this was talked about a lot in the early 1980s, but it did make me, reading this in 2021, think about it. I’m not sure hwat kind of a message this book sends to trans children so I would probably think twice about gifting it to one.

At the end of the book, a sort of mini-adventure/side quest happens that is over as quickly as it begins but serves to set up the villain for the next book(s). In general, most chapters are almost self-contained and tell their own little story. Despite the episodic nature and super fast pace, I had so much fun reading this. As I said, the fact that the language does evolve a bit helped. I also liked that we follow Alanna through several years of her life and watch her grow up, all within the matter of 270 pages. As I write this, I’m already halfway through the second book which I can tell you reads much more grown-up, offers new POVs and takes more time telling the story. It may not be a groundbreaking middle grade series for our age, but boy, is it great to help me out of a reading slump and race through books like I did when I was a child myself.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Song of the Lioness:

  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of The Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

Star Wars Anthology – From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

This Star Wars anthology retells the events of The Empire Strikes Back from different points of view. That much is clear from the title and – if you’ve read it – its predecessor, but for me this was a first foray into the world of Star Wars anthologies. I had read a few novelizations many, many years ago but other than that, I just re-watched the original trilogy a lot. To get stories from minor, sometimes VERY minor side-characters is such a cool idea that I couldn’t resist. The result was mixed but the positives outweigh the negatives.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
by various authors

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 561 pages
Series: Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.

This is quite a big book and no way am I going to tell you about each single story and how I liked it. As with any collection of short stories, especially ones by different authors, I liked some, loved others, disliked a few and felt meh about a handful. I’d say that’s a pretty normal reaction to a piece of writing that is made up of 40 different people’s ideas and styles. Nobody is going to like everything, but then again, there will be something for everybody.

I admit I picked this up primarily because I wanted to read Cat Valente‘s story about the exogorth (that worm thingy in the asteroid field) called “This Is No Cave”. I had heard wonderful things about it and those early reviews weren’t wrong. It is astonishing that Valente manged to make me feel for this creature that gets a full 5 seconds of screentime and whose backstory never really crossed my mind. But she gives Sy-O a backstory and it totally worked. I watched Empire again just yesterday – I knew so many side stories now, after all, and wanted to see if I recognized all the characters from this book (I didn’t) – and I felt a bit of a twinge when Sy-O appeared because now I had seen that part of the story from their perspective. And things aren’t as simple as they may seem.

But, and this is as surprising to me as it is to you, the Valente story was not my favorite in this anthology. In fact, three stories tied for my first place and they are all pretty different.
Django Wexler wrote “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” which delivers exactly what the title promises but with layers! Amara Kel is an Imperial pilot who knows how to stay alive. So far, at least. She lets us know her rules for survival not just by making a list but by telling us stories for each bullet point, stories that paint a picture of her life, her hopes and dreams, the woman she loves, and, almost as a side note, the events of Empire that happen to be going on at the same time. I loved everything about this story. The voice is lighthearted and funny, the protagonist is super easy to like, despite working for the Empire, and the story has a well-rounded ending. It got 4.75/5 stars from me.

Bildergebnis für faith in an old friend star warsJust like this next story, although for different reasons. “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany N. Williams is told from L3-37’s perspective, a droid-turned-part-of-the-Millennium-Falcon and for that alone, it feels more like a real part of Star Wars history, rather than just an aside to Empire. I had to look L3 up to remember exactly who she was but it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether you remember her or not. This story witnesses a few key events from Empire and while it was fun to watch Leia’s heartrate increase when Han is around, all while she pretends to dislike him, the heart of this tale was all about L3. Her history, especially with Lando, her consciousness, and her alliance with the rest of the Falcon’s droid brains. This story really touched me and it did a fantastic job of tying in movie scenes and quotes. Another 4.75/5 stars.

Lastly, “The Whills Strike Back”, the very last story in this anthology, ended up as my third favorite. It’s about the opening scrawl and that’s really all I want to say. It was hilarious and self-aware and made watching the movie again all the more fun.

So these three were my absolute favorites, but there were many more stories that I liked a lot. My overall problem with many stories in this anthology was that they were rather unimaginative. However, in the hands of a great writer, even a not-very-original story can be impressive. I’m thinking of Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order”, a story which doesn’t exactly hold any surprises in store but which completely blew me away with its writing. I seriously have to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant soon if this is what Dickinson always writes like.
Charles Yu’s “Kendal” similarly impressed me, as did “Against All Odds” by R. F. Kuang. That wasn’t a surprise because Kuang is amazing but it’s still worth mentioning.
“A Good Kiss” by C. B. Lee was one of the few stories that stood well on its own. It’s about Chase Wilsorr, a human on Hoth who runs errands and feels like a loser because he’s not as heroic as, say, Luke Skywalker. He also has a crush on another man. Lee tells a full story here that happens during the evacuation of the Rebel Base at Hoth and while I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming, I loved how fun and altogether nice this story was.

I don’t want to focus very much on the stories that didn’t work for me. But I was a bit surprised to find some authors I knew among my least favorites as well as others that I hadn’t read yet but had been looking forward to. Mark Oshiro’s story wasn’t for me but I’ll probably still try one of their novels. Mackenzi Lee has written The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which I found entertaining enough. Her short story for Star Wars left me cold and unimpressed.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed this anthology. Reading a story or two before bed was quite nice, even though some stories were better than others and even though at one point, I felt like we’d never get off Hoth. The stories are arranged in chronological order to fit the events of the movie. But given the amount (or lack) of side characters in any given scene, there are about a billion stories set on Hoth, hundreds on Imperial ships and in Cloud City, and a mere few set in different places. I understand why that is but I think that with a little creativity, more could have been done. I mean, there is a story here from the point of view of the cave on Dagobah! And remember Sy-O, the exogorth? Or the Millennium Falcon’s droid brains? Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess.

So would I recommend this book? Sure, if you like Star Wars. With most of the stories, I had no idea who exactly I was reading about but whether I ended up liking a story or not, it put me in a mood to watch the old movies again. I discovered some new authors that I’d like to read more of, and I enjoyed having a book to read in small increments. So unless you hate Star Wars, you can’t go wrong picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

Monsters, Magic, and Complicated Friendships: Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education

Originally, I had planned to read this as soon as it came out because, come on, a magic school novel by Naomi Novik? Gimme gimme gimme! But then early reviews started coming in and they were very mixed. People said the first half is only info-dumps, there are problems with the diversity, and the protagonist is unlikable. So these reviews put me on guard and that actually helped me enjoy the novel when I maybe wouldn’t have liked it as much otherwise.

A DEADLY EDUCATION
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 59 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Okay, a few surprising things that made up my first impressions of this book:
Protagonist Galadriel – El for short – is not in her first year at Scholomance and it’s not the beginning of term when the story starts. I know this sounds like nothing special, but I have come to expect certain story beats from a Magic School novel and Naomi Novik decided to ignore them all. So the book begins when El is already well established in the Scholomance, knows the rules, knows some fellow students, and has a plan on how to survive up until and through graduation.

The problem is that this takes out a lot of the fun of the Magic School trope and makes it difficult to discover any actual plot until much later in the book. We’re thrown into this world, trying to learn how everything works, why things are the way they are, what’s the point of this strange school in the middle of the Void. El’s antisocial sarcastic voice may lead us through her monster-filled daily life, but there didn’t really seem to be a goal, other than “survive graduation”. That sounds badass, sure, but routine, no matter how monster-filled, doesn’t make for a compelling plot.
What kept me going nonetheless was El’s utter disgust and annoyance at having her life saved by a boy named Orion Lake. I wanted to find out why El would be so opposed to someone helping her when she needs it and also whatever Orion has done to her to make her hate him so. We weren’t off to the best start, but that seed of curiosity was there.

After a while, things become a little clearer, we learn more about how the school operates and what rules this world’s magic abides by. We also learn of a lot of things, creatures, jobs, and terms that aren’t explained yet but I guess Novik is keeping those for later books in the series. But those reviews I read weren’t wrong. The beginning of the book is mostly just a vehicle for getting information across to the reader. It could have been done in a more exciting way but I also can’t say that I ever felt bored. Sure, it wasn’t elegant but the information did get through and I was eager to learn about this crazy world where kids are sent to a school that is literally trying to kill them (not that Hogwarts didn’t have yearly murderous events, but come on). There are no teachers or supervisors. Assignments just appear in class, the school itself moves and changes in order to make life as hard as possible for the students. The library switches out books if you’re not looking, monsters fall from the ceiling, your food might be poisoned, and all things considered, the Scholomance is just not a very nice place to be…

What finally made this book gripping enough to make me go “just one more chapter” a dozen times in a row was the middle part and the characters. Although mentioned early on, it takes a while for them to become actual people, even El. Her off-putting, mean, and rude behaviour starts making sense the more you learn about the world. And the slow budding of friendships between her and some other students were well done. Her strange bickering relationship with Orion, whom she dislikes but who keeps saving her life and then being smug about it, her careful friendship with Aadhya and Liu, they were all lovely to watch, especially because they felt like individual friendships, not El simply joining a pre-existing group.
There was one scene that clearly stands out to me and probably added an entire star to my rating of this book. It happens around the middle and it is so good and so exciting and shows a side of El’s character that I had been hoping to see but had started to doubt existed. I know I’m super vague again but you guys! I do NOT want to spoil this part. It made me stay up late and pre-order the second book.

Towards the end, a sort of last-minute plot does come up to give the characters something to do other than just exist and survive. I enjoyed that part well enough even though it felt like a late addition to a novel that didn’t yet know what it wanted to be about. Naomi Novik has built an interesting world – at least judging from what little I know of it – and put some characters in it that have potential. I’m not sure how I feel about the Prophecy hanging over El’s head (we learn way too little about that, so I’m sure it will be back later in the series), but I did love the social commentary the Scholomance allows.
You don’t survive on your own, so alliances are the way to go. Some kids – the privileged ones, born into an enclave – appear at school already part of such an alliance. They share mana, they watch each other’s backs, they train and fight together to survive graduation as a group. The enclave-less students are either cannon fodder or they are granted the great honor of doing the work nobody else wants to do in order to maybe get a spot in an enclave. It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor for our own world but I found it worked really, really well and showed just how unfair it all is. How unprivileged people are being kept unprivileged, how the rich protect themselves and their own, how if you’re working your way up from the bottom you have to do 100 times more than someone who starts at the top simply by virtue of being born… That’s an aspect that truly grabbed me and it’s one more reason I want to continue this series.

There has been some controversy surrounding this book’s diversity. Well.. that sounded wrong. The controversy was about the use of the word “dreadlocks” and the fact that some evil magical critters (calle maleficaria) nest in the hair, implying it’s dirty and vermin-infested. I understand how that is hurtful to people with locs and Naomi Novik has apologized for her mistake. That’s really all I can say about that. We’ll have to see if she does better in the next book. I for my part am convinced she will be extra careful from now on.
The characters themselves are also meant to represent a wide range of people from all over the world. I love that thought but there wasn’t a lot of time to establish them as there’s always a monster trying to eat someone or an assignment to do. El is a half-Welsh/half-Indian girl, although there is very little mention of her Indian heritage. I liked learning about the Welsh side of her upbringing because, well, it was really interesting, not so much because she’s from Wales but because what we learn of her childhood is quite unusual and explains a lot about El’s personality. El’s fellow students come from all over the world and I loved how having different language skills makes an actual difference for your survival at school. If a spell only exists in Arabic or Hindi, then people who speak it are at an advantage – which is a super nice change to everything being English or tailored to English-speaking folks. In a place that is as skewed toward the wealthy and privileged (which come from places like New York or London), it’s nice to see that things other than money and “birthright” can help someone advance or at least give them a fighting chance.

My feelings about this book are very confused. I enjoyed reading it, even the parts that clearly could have been done better. Even the muddled, aimless beginning, even El’s unnecessarily gruff ways, even the bits where little happens. I loved some other parts and learning more about the world, seeing El manage to make some friends and finding a way to live by her own rules. But I know that Naomi Novik could have written this book much better with proper plotting from beginning to end, with better developed characters and just a teensy bit more info about why this world works the way it does. The rational side of me understands all of this but there was still something about this book that grabbed me. I try to analyze my own feelings about books but this time, I just can’t put my finger on it and I can’t explain it. I just liked it, okay!
I will definitely read the next instalment because now that all the set-up is done, I’m confident I’ll get all those things that were neglected here: deeper character development, more in depth world building, and a thrilling plot right from the start. Also, that mini-cliffhanger at the end didn’t hurt.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good!

 

Fairy Tales With a Twist: Rainbow Rowell, Nic Stone, Soman Chainani, Ken Liu, and Gayle Forman – The Faraway Series (Amazon Publishing)

This series of short stories caught my eye not only because it’s fairy tales with a twist but also because these stories are written by  authors I was already interested in. The only one I’ve read before is Soman Chainani, but I’ve at least heard of most of the others. And. I just can’t walk away from a new fairy tale retelling.

FARAWAY
by Rainbow Rowell, Nic Stone, Soman Chainani, Ken Liu, Gayle Forman

Published: Amazon Publishing, 2020
eBook: 171 pages
Series: Faraway #1 – #5
My rating: 7/10

Faraway is a collection of retold fairy tales that take the happily-ever-after in daring new directions. Whether read or listened to in one sitting, prepare to be charmed, moved, enlightened, and frightened all over again.

As with any story collection, quality varies and everyone will prefer different stories over others. But I have to say I like the idea for these stories. Each tackling a well-known fairy tale and telling a version “for the here and now”. I don’t know exactly what the authors were told to do, whether they could choose their own fairy tale or were assigned one, but it’s interesting to see how they went in such different directions.

Rainbow Rowell sets her story in a (probably?) post-apocalyptic, strange world and focuses on character relationship. Nic Stone and Soman Chainani both leave their feet firmly on real-world ground, but both chose very dark topics, as befits a fairy tale if you ask me. The two were my favorite stories.

Ken Liu did some amazing world building and set up intriguing characters but forgot to tell a story with them. And Gayle Forman stuck closely to three fairy tale characters who all live in the same fairy tale universe together.

That said, all the stories were entertaining to read and I didn’t hate any of them.

Rainbow Rowell – The Prince and the Troll (3/5)

As my first taste of Rainbow Rowell’s writing, this wasn’t bad. It’s the story of Adam, who lives by the road, which is very lucky because the road is beautiful and safe. Adam meets a woman (a troll?) who lives under a bridge and strikes up a sort of friendship with her, expressed through daily Starbucks coffees.
While the budding relationship was okay to read about, I was much more interested in the world these characters inhabit. We don’t get much information but there is a strange post-apocalyptic feel to it and the road is the only safe place, except not really? Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t really go anywhere and we’re left with a well told but ultimately flat tale. The ending also didn’t feel very satisfying and I didn’t see the point of the little twist, because it changes nothing.

Nic Stone – Hazel and Gray (4/5)

This modern take on Hansel and Gretel  managed to be super dark without ever feeling too dark. Hazel and Gray are young and in love but Hazel’s stepfather forbids them to see each other. Hazel’s stepfather also has wandering eyes and sometimes creeps up on Hazel looking at her decidedly unfatherly. So the two teens sneak away, get lost in the woods, and stumble upon a big house. In hope of finding a phone to use or at least figure out how to get back home, they enter and… well, they find something unexpected that I don’t want to spoil for you.
I really liked this story. It manages to pack a bit of backstory as well as the dark and sinister main plot and while things wrap up rather neatly, I found the conclusion satisfying and the fairy tale twist well done.

Soman Chainani – The Princess Game (5/5)

My favorite story of the bunch! Told through transcribed audio recordings of a police investigation at a prestigious High School, this is the story of a murder investigation. Girls are being killed off in “fairy tale style”. A girl stabbed with a spindle, another with her voice box cut out, yet another stabbed with glass slippers… Former undercover cop Pederson is trying to get to the bottom of it by interrogating the “Princes”, the High School’s jocks and his friends (up until they learned he was a cop, at least). These interviews were chilling to read and deal with topics such as toxic masculinity, High School pressure, gossip, social media, and many more.
I loved everything about this! It is suspenseful, the characters (aptly named after Disney princes) felt real, and the revelation of the killer is absolutely chilling!
Side note: I’m quite curious what the audiobook version of this is like. If you’ve listened to it, please let me know: Are there different narrators for the characters? Is it just one narrator reading in different voices? This would be so cool as an audio drama!

Ken Liu – The Cleaners (2.5/5)

Although my most anticipated of these stories, this turned out to be my least favorite. Ken Liu tells us of three characters in an intriguing world where memories cling to objects, letting the person touching it receive a jolt of emotion. Gui is a cleaner, and one who can do his job easily because he is lacking the power to feel memories or emotions from objects. Clara is also a cleaner but one who works with gloves that sometimes aren’t enough to protect her from receiving terrible memories.
Her sister Beatrice has a heightened sense and works as a lawyer. When she touches an object, she sees full memories rather than just impressions. That’s all very intriguing!
We get snippets of these three characters’ lives and how they deal with their jobs but this story’s problem is that it doesn’t tell a story. It’s just an introduction to a world and characters with no real beginning, middle or end. I would totally read a novel based on this but on its own, the tale just didn’t work for me.

Gayle Forman – The Wickeds (3.5/5)

And the last of the Faraway tales is all about the evil mothers from Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel. These three – now rather aged and much hated by the kingdoms – team up and decide to embrace their wickedness together. If the gossip magazines say they are evil, then why not actually be a little evil? In this story we learn that things didn’t happen quite the way we remember from the original fairy tales and it also makes sure to teach us a Feminist Lesson in each chapter. Now, I’m all for the message, but I prefer it to be delivered with a bit more subtlety than three women with wrinkles smashing a mirror…
I thought each chapter’s message was too obvious and not very original in its execution. The whole “it didn’t happen that way, I’m actually the good guy” idea is so old and worn, I didn’t really care. But the three women do come together in a sort of friendship which is really nice and the ending was actually so good that it turned things around for me.


I find it interesting that my favorite stories are the ones with absolutely no speculative elements to them. That doesn’t sound like me at all, but maybe it’s the combination of fairy tales and a completely different genre that works so well. Fairy tales already have magic. Putting them in a real world setting while keeping some fairy tale elements with feels cleverer than just continuing a fairy tale in its own world.

While this is not a groundbreaking collection of stories, I do wholeheartedly recommend “The Princess Game” and “Hazel and Gray”, and I’m also happy that I now know Nic Stone. I had never read anything by her, nor even heard of her. But someone who handles such dark themes so deftly might even get me to pick up a contemporary YA book. Even if it has no magic in it.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Drawn-Out Yet Epic Conclusion: Marissa Meyer – Supernova

Ah, Marissa Meyer, you writer of my guilty pleasure books. Since I was on such a roll catching up and finishing the book series I had started, I thought I’d pick this one up at the end of 2020, just to end the year with something breezy and fun. Spoilers for Renegades and Archenemies below.

SUPERNOVA
by Marissa Meyer

Published: Feiwel & Friends, 2019
eBook: 560 pages
Series: Renegades #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Everyone has a nightmare.

All’s fair in love and anarchy. . .

‘Supernova’, the epic conclusion to ‘New York Times’ best-selling author Marissa Meyer’s thrilling Renegades Trilogy, finds Nova and Adrian struggling to keep their secret identities concealed while the battle rages on between their alter egos, their allies, and their greatest fears come to life. Secrets, lies, and betrayals are revealed as anarchy once again threatens to reclaim Gatlon City.

Supernova starts just where Archenemies left off, with a gravely injured Max, a captured Ace Anarchy, and not a single resolved problem. Nova’s secret identity is still somewhat safe, but Adrian has revealed his being the Sentinel to his closest friends (not including Nova, despite their boyfriend/girlfriend status). The moment I’ve been waiting for since the first book – the unravelling of secrets, the speaking of truths, the resolution of this brewing war between Renegades and Anarchists – must finally happen. Buuuuut Marissa Meyer takes her sweet, sweet time with that.

To be honest, keeping the ruse going for two entire (not small) books already felt like a bit of a stretch. After all, we know that once the secrets are out, there is still a lot of work to do if the protagonists want to unite Renegades and Anarchists and actually make the world better. The issues around which the war is built are serious ones – not just who gets to decide who’s a hero and who’s a villain but also civilians relying too much on prodigies and thus not learning important skills. If there is always a healer prodigy around, why study medicine, after all? Both Nova and Adrian see these problems and while they want to make things better in their own way, they don’t seem to grasp that simply killing a certain group of prodigies (Renegades or Anarchists) won’t magically change the system.

Marissa Meyer spends hundreds of pages in this book with mostly useless stuff. What I really wanted at this point was for the secrets to come out, for Nova and Adrian to work out their issues – lying to each other for months while at the same time falling in love makes things a bit difficult, after all – and for the prodigies of Gatlon City to figure out this war and where to go from there. But what we get is banter between the Renegades team, reminders of things that happened before, Adrian hating Nightmare, Nightmare hating the Sentinel, the Renegades not listening to differing opinions, the Anarchists not listening to differing opinions, and basically more variations of everything that we’ve already read in the previous two books. It gets tedious, let me tell you.

When at one point, it truly seems like Nova’s game is over, I felt a glimmer of hope. But nope, Meyer and her protagonist decided to hold on to their ruse and keep milking it for as long as they could. What was exciting in the first book became ridiculous at this point. Seriously, I didn’t even care anymore if Nova was found out because the plot would just conveniently contort in a way that makes everyone believe Nova’s lies despite the overwhelming evidence against her.
Adrian’s secret Sentinel identity lost its thrill as well. Let’s face it, he may have broken some Renegades rules but he did in fact mostly save lives and help people. So where’s the huge problem with him coming out with the truth? Sure, people will be disappointed that he lied to them but in the end, the Sentinel is a good guy who just has a problem with authority.

There are glimpses of the deeper themes of this story. Two factions who are sworn enemies aren’t actually all that different from each other and some of the issues the Renegades raise would find nothing but agreement in the Anarchist camp and vice versa. This whole idea of there not being any “villains” but just people who fall on different areas of a value spectrum was a great one and I would have loved if it had been explored in more depth. I commend Meyer for using show-don’t-tell to make her readers think for themselves but the most important part – the characters – still seemed rather rigid in their beliefs, even after figuring out for themselves that “hero” and “villain” are arbitrary definitions that don’t really say much.

The introduction of Agent N – the neutralizing chemical that can strip any superhero of their powers forever – was a major plot point in Archenemies and I loved (from a storytelling point of view) the implications it raised. Now the Renegades want to use Agent N on all the convicted villains who have been imprisoned since the Age of Anarchy, and it is mostly Nova who raises the question of whether rehabilitation shouldn’t be attempted first, before taking away someone’s powers, something that defines them as a person. Many of the “convicted” villains didn’t even have a trial, they were simply branded evil by the Renegade High Council. When you look at this kind of “justice system”, it’s easy to understand Nova’s continued hatred for the Renegades, but it also kind of makes her Renegade friends look like idiots. Who in their right mind would condone such a system?

Although it takes ages to get there, the truth eventually does come out. And not just about Nova and Adrian’s respective secrets but also about some other questions that have been posed in the very first book. We know how Nova’s family died and how she was saved by Ace Anarchy and raised by the Anarchists. We also know how Adrian’s mother died, although not who killed her. The revelation of the latter was actually pretty cool and surprising and that’s all I can say without spoiling or giving hints that are too obvious.
Nova has also held on to her father’s bracelet since the first book and the magical “star” jewel that fits into it since the second book. Any reader will know that these items must have some significance – and they do! I didn’t find this revelation to be quite that original but it made for an exciting ending at least.

The ending as such was pretty epic, with battle scenes, switching loyalties, and more dark secrets revealed. I enjoyed reading it because that’s what I’d been hoping for all along. A clash between Renegades and Anarchists, between Nova and Adrian, between all the other prodigies who think they must choose a side. I’m not spoiling anything here but I found that after a story that took so many pages to show that there is no pure good or evil, things fell into place rather too neatly. We all knew it had to come down to Nova’s decision on whether to betray her uncle and the people who raised her or the Renegades and the friends she’s made. With a last minute cheap twist and an over-the-top villain, this decision was made super easy, taking away the moral and psychological conflict that would have existed otherwise. It just felt cheap! Epic and fun to read action sequences, but still emotionally cheapened.

I’m not sure if there is a sequel planned but the epilogue certainly still holds a little twist in store and sets up a potential new story in this world. As much as I adore Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, I don’t know that I’ll be reading another book set in the Renegades universe. I do like Marissa Meyer’s develpment as a writer. Her characters may still be rather two-dimensional but the stories she tells show way more depth than, say, Cinder did. Ah, who am I kidding. I’ll read whatever else she writes, because despite the books’ flaws, they are always fun, with original ideas, and cute romances. And sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Witcher Witches On: Andrzej Sapkowski – Blood of Elves

I started diving in the the Witcher universe late last year, mostly because I wanted to be prepared for the Netflix show (can definitely recommend reading the first two books prior to watching), and the two story collections surprised me so much that I knew I would continue reading the series this year. Blood of Elves is the first full-length novel in the Witcher series and while I think the author does much better with short stories, I still kind of liked it. Enough to keep going anyway.

BLOOD OF ELVES
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published: Hachette, 1994
eBook: 420 pages
Audiobook:
Series: The Witcher #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The town was in flames.

For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.
Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world – for good, or for evil.
As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all – and the Witcher never accepts defeat.
The Witcher returns in this sequel to The Last Wish, as the inhabitants of his world become embroiled in a state of total war.

This book is very much an introduction. An introduction to the larger tale that will (probably) take place over the course of the series. Geralt of Rivia has found his Child Surprise Ciri and is training her in the arts of fighting at Kaer Morhen. But soon it becomes apparent, after a visit from Triss Merigold, that Ciri could use a mother figure as well. Add to that the fact that many people are out to find her and user her for their own purposes…

Although this is a novel, not a short story collection like the previous two books, it very much reads like vignettes that were pushed together somehow to form a slightly coherent whole. Through several different POV characters, we see the state of the world – impending war, the machinations to get to the prophecied child, unrests in the kingdom, and political intrigues – but there was decidedly too little of Geralt himself in this book to quite please me. I had a blast meeting Dandilion again (who was called Dandelion in the first two books and is called Jaskier in the Netflix show, for ultimate confusion) and of course my favorite sorceress Yennefer, that complicated, amazing, difficult woman!

But the story as such is rather thin. A mysterious man named Rience is looking for Geralt, and through him for Ciri, and has his agents spread throughout the kingdom, killing and torturing people for information. Geralt, meanwhile, has sent Ciri away to a secret place, making sure she isn’t found by anyone who would harm her. And the various rulers of the land are discussing on how best to unite the kingdom to prepare for war. The situation between humans and Elves is difficult, but we also musn’t forget the Nilfgaardians. Sure, there currently is a truce in place, but nobody believes it will last long… And that’s really all the plot we get, summed up for you.

Then why did I kind of enjoy this book anyway? It is only set up, no conclusion. It opens new plot strings, shows us more about the characters, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. In fact, the book spends a surprising amount of time on long conversations between two characters, be it Ciri and Yennefer, or Dandilion and whoever is questioning him at the moment (serioulsy, that guy attracts trouble like nobody else). That’s why I felt the transition from story collection to novel wasn’t all that well done. Sapkowski still does the same thing he did in The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, except not as clearly divided by chapters.

I did love to get to know Ciri a bit better, especially as she grows up a few years throughout this book. Having been trained a little bit like a witcher (minus the dangerous treatments) and a little bit like a sorcerer, she still is just a girl wanting to fit in somewhere. Sapkowski surprised me again with how much time he spent on having Ciri discuss being a woman with first Triss Merigold and then Yennefer. It is Ciri’s first period that makes the witchers understand that they can’t give Ciri everything she needs (although why a grown man who has been with women wouldn’t have some understanding of how things work is beyond me, but okay, I’ll run with it) and then, a thirteen-year-old Ciri worries about things like losing her virginity. It’s not plot relevant and it’s not even super important to the characters but it does make her a much more believable young girl. Prophecy or no, she’s a teenager who worries about teenage things. The fate of the world may rest in her hands, but what’s begin discussed amont her friends is who kissed whom and who’s the prettiest. So while these sections weren’t exactly action-packed and consisted mostly of two characters talking, I really appreciated them.

I also liked how Sapkowski helped me remember what happened before without using info dumps. When the rulers discuss on how to handle the upcoming war, they don’t rehash all the events from the first two books, but they talk about them as something that happened and had consequences, which in turn helps us readers remember those events and the names of the people involved. Because let’s not forget that while Ciri is Geralt’s Child Surprise and has a prophecy and all that, she’s also the only living heir of Queen Calanthe (one of the most badass characters in fantasy ever!), the Lion Cub of Cintra. Apart from her magical powers, her blood lines, and her witcher training, she’s also an important person politically speaking. And that’s what this book is really all about. Showing us just how important this one little girl really is and what her mere existence is doing to the kingdom. I expect epic stuff to happen in the following books, judging from all that was set up here.

And that’s really all there is to say. I had hoped for more depth when it comes to the conflict between races from a book that’s called Blood of Elves but we get only a few glimpses of that. Enough to keep me interested but, you know. More wouldn’t have hurt. I also wanted more Geralt but at the same time I appreciated the other characters’ points of view. And while I enjoyed this book, it is by no means a book that stands on its own. There’s no evil cliffhanger or anything but nothing gets resolved, no questions are answered, it’s more like a very long first chapter. I, for my part, will continue on to the next, and probably the one after that, because I fell in love with the world and with Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer as characters. These books have all been quick reads so far and didn’t feel at all like they were 400 pages long. And once I’m done, I’ll finally dive into the game, only five years after everyone else. 🙂

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good