A Satisfying Ending: S. A. Chakraborty – The Empire of Gold

The Daevabad Trilogy is a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award this year, so I finally picked up the second and third book to see if they could keep up with the first. After a slow start, this book delivered pretty much everything I had hoped for and managed to stick the ending. It’s going to be very hard choosing favorites this year! SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS BELOW!

THE EMPIRE OF GOLD
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
eBook:
766 pages
Audiobook:
28 hours 37 minutes
Series:
The Daevabad Trilogy #3
My rating:
7.25/10

Opening line: Behind the battlements of the palace that had always been hers, Banu Manizheh e-Nahid gazed at her family’s city.

The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

After the shocking events and the evil cliffhanger of The Kingdom of Copper, S. A. Chakraborty takes her sweet time getting the story going again. We meet our characters exactly where we left them in the last book and, just like us readers, they have to pick up the pieces of their lives, understand what has just happened and figure out where to go from here first. On the one hand, it’s nice to be reminded of prior events, to ease one’s way back into this world of djinn and politics and strange magic, on the other hand, it makes for somewhat slow reading during the first ahlf of this book.

Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo where they spend quite a bit of time before they decide to get back into the whole saving the djinn business again. Afte rall, Nahri’s mother has taken Daevabad, Ali is trying to get over his brother’s death, and Nahri still can’t believe what Menizah and Dara have done… As understandable as this quieter period in their lives is, as eager was I for the story to pick up again. I needn’t have worried, however, because when things do get going, they go crazy.

Chakraborty uses her time wisely because while the bigger plot may not be moving forward, the characters are growing quite a bit. Nahri and Ali finally open up to each other, tell the whole truth, and – who’d have thought – it turns out they make a really good team. I really enjoyed their story line, both in terms of actiony bits, new revelations about both their pasts, and in terms of their evolving feelings. I still think the love triangle is used way too much in fiction and should be put to rest, but I was okay with how things went in Empire of Gold.

There comes a point in the middle of this book when the wait is over. I remember one particular scene that made me absolutely not want to go to bed before I knew everyone was okay and it kept me reading for hours and hours. You know that childish excitement you feel when you’re reading a really good book that you are super invested in? That’s how I felt and that’s why I forgive the 350 merely “okay” pages that came before. Because from that point onwards, everything happened at once.

S. A. Chakraborty has built up many plot strings, posed a lot of questions, and set up certain situations that all wanted to be resolved. The question was whether she could do it, and do it well. Let me tell you that – while everyone probably has a different opinion on how that love triangle should have been resolved or whether it needed to be there ein the first place – I was more than happy with the ending.
It had revelations that I had expected but it also had twists that I hadn’t seen coming at all. It manages incredibly difficult moral situations in a deft manner, without taking the easy way out. No spoilers here, so I can’t go into detail, but if you’ve read this book you know several characters have done tings they’re not proud of, some of them worse than others. Whether it’s reexamining your own prejudice, being open for other people’s point of view, trying to repay a debt, or doing what’s right simply because you know you should – the character arcs in this series all reach what I would call a satisfying ending.

I really enjoyed Empire of Gold, especially its more action-packed scenes that make you fear for the characters. Chakraborty is damn great at getting my heart racing, whether it’s because a protagonist is facing their own death or holding the hand of a person they secretly love… I’d say the romance, family relationships, and action scenes were the strongest parts of this book. Now that the trilogy is finished, I am curious to see what Chakraborty comes up with next. I’m totally up for more djinn!

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Very good

A Lord of the Rings Knock-Off With Potential: Robert Jordan – The Eye of the World

It’s true. This is my very first time reading The Wheel of Time and I am a bit surprised myself that I have lived to the ripe age of 35 without catching any spoilers. With the TV show coming up in a few months’ time, I thought it would be nice to get a head start on the books and see if this beloved epic fantasy series is for me. Or if it holds up to the test of time. My impressions are pretty much as expected, although the positives outweigh the negatives. 🙂

THE EYE OF THE WORLD
by Robert Jordan

Published: Tor, 1990
eBook:
751 pages
Series:
The Wheel of Time #1
My rating:
6.25/10

Opening line: The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs-a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts- five villagers flee that night into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light. 

So this is it, the beginning of a 14-book saga, planned and plotted and mostly written by one man, finished by another. I pushed this series ahead of me for so many years. The page count is intimidating to say the least, there are many mixed opinions about whether it’s just too damn long, and it’s not like I needed another fantasy series to be in the middle of. But it turns out, there’s no motivator quite like an upcoming TV adaptation to get me reading books that I should have read ages ago.
Thanks to this handy guide posted by Sensei2006 on Reddit, I knew a little of what to expect and I was prepared for the heavy Lord of the Rings influences. This made a huge difference to me, because knowing a little about the background (publishers wanting to publish nothing but LOTR copy cats because that shit sold) as well as getting an idea of what to expect in future books, those things really help me adjust my expectations. I still rolled my eyes at all the moments where I could pinpoint “Oh, so this is their Aragorn” or “Mat is just Pippin and Gollum rolled into one” or “I guess the Mountains of Dhoom are the natural barrier to the evil land” and “this place is Jordan’s version of Moria”. The parallels are really quite ridiculous but throughout the book, there is a sense of original ideas that want to come through and simply didn’t get the chance yet.

The story begins in Emond’s Field, a small village in the Two Rivers area, where Rand al’Thor and his father are going to town to prepare for a big feast. A mysterious dark, hooded rider seems to be following Rand, giving him the creeps. If you’re thinking “Bilbo’s birthday” and “nâzgul”, I don’t think anyone can fault you. And indeed, the village is attacked by monstrous Trollocs, and Rand and his companions leave on a perilous journey to Tar Volon. I’m not going to give you all the murky details here. The magic woman – an Aes Sedai named Moiraine – said the boys should go, so they go. So it’s Rand, Mat, and Perrin, Rand’s kind of love interest Egwene, Moiraine herself as well as her warder Lan, plus a travelling bard who start out on the journey. Not long after, Nynaeve, the village wisdom joins them and the fellowship is complete. Thre is a nice mi of people who already know and like each other – the boys are friends and Rand and Egwene have some unspoken love thingy going – and newcomers who can’t be trusted. Nynaeve is the most sceptical of Moiraine, not least because Egwene (who’s supposed to follow in Nynaeve’s footsteps) seems very taken with the poised and powerful woman.

What follows is a mixture of boring repetitive stuff, exciting action, hints of original world building, and a whole lot of other Lord of the Rings-esque places and people. At one point the fellowship parts ways and we get to follow the separate groups on their little side adventures, hoping they can reunite and get to where they need to go. Some of those side adventures were better than others. I really enjoyed Perrin’s story line, for example, maybe because it was the least reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. But we get a bit of everything here, including a boat voyage.
Mat and Rand’s endless series of inns dragged quite a bit, even though there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in the background. Because, let me tell you, those boys’ dreams are not normal. And Mat, being the Golpin of this group and alternating between completely idiotic Pippin behaviour and Gollum-like paranoia, is definitely nothing like Sam Gamgee…

As I read along, I got more and more into the story. Of course there are many silly tropes, certain things were super predictable, and Robert Jordan apparently only knows how to write one type of woman, but the further along I got, the more I got to see of what this world has to offer that’s not LotR-like. The magic system, although not really explained in any depth, is interesting in that it uses a gender binary and only allows women to use the One Power without danger of going insane. When men wielded that Power, they broke the world. And also went insane. It makes for interesting power dynamics despite the lack of varied female characters.
I was also quite taken with the race of the Ogier and I hope to learn much more about them in later books. Ooh, and the Waygates! And I’m super curious about the long-term outcome of Perrin’s adventure, which is all I can say without spoiling anything.

Despite its pacing issues, the blatant parallels to Tolkien, and the weak characterization, I did enjoy this book. It has been my companion for about a month and it had its ups and downs. Sometimes the plot slowed to an almost-standstill, but we got a bit of character development. Then the plot would come up with a cool revelation and I’d be hooked again for a while. I guess the best way to sum up my feelings is that I never had to force myself to read this. I was always looking forward to the book, even though I felt I knew 90% of what was going to happen. The last-minute Treebeard was just an added bonus that I admit I didn’t foresee. And the very end, although also partly predictable, left enough questions open for me to remain curious. Also, I somehow started to really like Rand and I want to make sure that boy is okay. I’m very much expecting him to not be okay, but a lot can happen in thirteen books.

What The Eye of the World does, most of all, is set things up. It lets us travel a nice chunk of the world, we get to know the major characters and even catch glimpses of what might be the big bad. We are given a very basic idea of the magic system, although I like that there are no clear instructions about “good” or “bad”. Some people fear the Aes Sedai and curse their magic, others revere them for their powers and ask their counsel. I like the fact that I don’t know exactly what to think about Moiraine, and I like it even more that there are factions among the Aes Sedai who don’t always agree. I smell politics brewing and poor innocent (although without a doubt super important prophecied hero and maybe lost prince or whatever) Rand caught in the middle. There is lore here and history, cultures, songs, royalty, and the feeling of a much bigger story than we got to see so far. I have no idea if it’s a story that should really be fourteen books long, but I’m going to at least read the next one to see what Robert Jordan does when he’s not trying to be the next Tolkien.

MY RATING: 6.25/10 – Good

Magic, Egypt, and Bowler Hats: P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn

P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.

Brilliant or Boring? John Crowley – Little, Big

This is my favorite author’s favorite book, so to say I had high expectations is a bit of an understatement. It is also one of the most acclaimed fantasy novels ever, having won the World Fantasy Award and having been nominated for several other awards. It’s a Fantasy Masterworks title, it keeps coming up on Best Of lists and is generally one of the most beloved books out there. So, the pressure was high and maybe that’s why the story lost steam for me around the half-way point. And now, after finally having finished reading it, I honestly can’t say whether I found it brilliant or boring.

LITTLE, BIG
by John Crowley

Published: Harper Perennial, 1981
eBook: 564 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

This is the story of the Drinkwater family, following them through several generations and watching, alongside them, the Tale unfold. It all begins (at least for us readers) with an anomymous and almost invisible young man named Smoky Barnable who falls in love with the slightly mysterious Daily Alice Drinkwater and goes to her even more mysterious house to marry her. Both the time and setting are kept vague, although it becomes clear that “the City” is New York and that Edgewood, the Drinkwater house, is not too far from it. So Smoky goes to marry his Alice and becomes part of a decidedly strange family. Great Aunt Cloud reads tarot cards as if they told her actual truths, Auberon’s old photographs of Alice and her sister as girls seem to show strange beings alongside them, the house itself is a crazy mixture of architectural styles, and the Drinkwaters seem to be in on a grand secret.

As an astute fantasy reader (and you don’t even need to be all that attentive), it is very clear that the Drinkwater secret has something to do with fairies. The word “fairy” isn’t mentioned until about halfway through the book, but all the descriptions and hints point in that direction. The family members also keep mentioning being part of the Tale and thus each having to play their part, although nobody seems to know quite what Tale it is, which part they’re playing, whether they will be there to witness its end, or even what the point of it all is. But it does give the book and the Drinkwater family in particular, an air of mystery, a feeling of aloofness, of being in on something us regular mortals will never understand. I quite like this Pan’s Labyrinth-esque juxtaposition of regular life with something magical. Except eventually, I’d like to actually see the fairies or at least know that they exist and the Drinkwaters aren’t just a family who’s collectively gone coocoo.

So what’s this big book actually about, you ask. Well… it starts out with something resembling a plot, with Smoky and Alice getting together, getting married and having children of their own. We get to know them and their family members, we learn about Smoky’s past, about Alice and Sophie as children and their strange connection to Edgewood and its surroundings (plus the fairies nobody calls by name). Then we go back further in time and find out how Edgewood came to be and why, exactly, the Drinkwater family seems to be the only one who knows about fairies and is somehow connected to them. I loved these bits very much, even though I can’t say that they had a lot of plot.
But then comes a sort of time jump and we focus on Smoky and Alice’s son and his adventures in the big City and those, while interesting, just dragged on too long without leading anywhere. A side plot was also introduced sometime mid-book which felt jarring to me. It’s not that the side plot doesn’t fit into the overall story (although I think it would have worked just as well without it) but throwing it in so late in the book made it feel like a lazy afterthought. This part, the third quarter of the book, took me a ridiculous amount of time to read because I was annoyed by that time at still not having received any sort of information about what the hell all of this is supposed to be about and then about having to read about a guy becoming a drunk because his girlfriend left him… It was just not my jam. Not that Crowley didn’t describe these things really well, I was just hoping for a tiny bit of fantasy in my fantasy novel. After 300 pages of realism and weirdness, it’s okay to give me more than half a chapter of magic.

So the book became work rather than fun, I put it aside for a longer period of time and when I picked it up, reading was slow going. Until I got closer and closer to the end and my hopes rose up again. You see, as the end drew near, I was hoping for this bombastic, epic, maybe twisty ending. That didn’t happen. And I am well aware that this probably just isn’t the kind of book that wants to deliver a super epic, twisty, surprising, or even particularly emotional ending. Just because you don’t mention fairies doesn’t mean they’re not obvious. And just because nobody outright says where the Tale is leading doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes for it. After all, for a plan that was several generations in the making, expecting something big isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like this book isn’t about plot or fantasy or even relationships so much, the ending didn’t do much more for me than let me know the story is over. The Tale is done, everyone has played their part, for better or worse, and now it’s over. I think I even said out loud: This is it? That’s really all there is?

That sounds rather disappointing, so why am I so undecided about whether to love or hate this book? Well, you see, John Crowley can really write! I mean, keeping me entertained for hundreds of pages in which barely anything happens, when those fairies I was desperately waiting for refused to show up, and most characters are kept at arm’s lenght, that’s already a feat. Doing it with language that flows beautifully, that paints pictures in your mind and creates atmosphere, that’s something else. I admit, during the Auberon parts even that wasn’t enough to keep me really hooked, but there is no denying that Crowley has a gift with words.
And it’s not just that the language sounds good on a sentence level. He also manages to conjure up believable (if strange) characters seemingly without effort. I may not be particularly fond of some of the characters in this book, but I do care about them in a way. The Drinkwater family is rather large and we don’t get to know all of its members closely, but the ones we do all feel like real people. People that don’t let us, as the reader, get too close to them, but interesting specimens to watch from afar.

I am no closer to knowing how to feel about this book than I was just after I finished it. I do feel a bit disappointed at reading so many pages for this little outcome. No matter how nice the language, I feel that the author had promised certain things, certain fantasy elements, that weren’t delivered. As a work of literary fiction, this is probably a brilliant novel. As a fantasy, I don’t know. My rating isn’t particularly meaningful, it’s what I think the book deservers at this moment in time. Maybe someday I’ll re-read it, find something new to love about it, and adjust my rating accordingly. Or maybe I’ll never feel the urge to pick this book up again and change the rating to something lower? Maybe I was just not smart enough to get this book. I loved the first half, didn’t like the second, and the ending was a let-down.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

When The Wild Hunt Rides Things Get Tricky: Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night

While I had expected this to be a Best Series finalists in the Hugo Awards again this year, I wanted to continue the series anyway. But the nomination gave me the necessary push to maybe start reading a bit sooner, because the more instalments I can read before the voting period is over, the better I can judge the Toby Daye books against their competition. And the competition is fierce!

artificial-nightAN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2010
eBook: 352 pages
Series: October Daye #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: One thing I’ve learned in my time working as a private investigator-slash-knight errant for the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area: if something looks like it’s going to be simple, it probably won’t be.

Changeling knight in the court of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, October “Toby” Daye has survived numerous challenges that would destroy fae and mortal alike. Now Toby must take on a nightmarish new assignment.

Someone is stealing both fae and mortal children—and all signs point to Blind Michael. When the young son of Toby’s closest friends is snatched from their Northern California home, Toby has no choice but to track the villains down, even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael’s realm—home of the legendary Wild Hunt—and no road may be taken more than once. If she cannot escape with all the children before the candle that guides and protects her burns away, Toby herself will fall prey to Blind Michael’s inescapable power.

And it doesn’t bode well for the success of her mission that her own personal Fetch, May Daye—the harbinger of Toby’s own death—has suddenly turned up on her doorstep…

This may only be the third book in a pretty long series (14 volumes at the time I’m writing this) but after reading the first two, I felt confident enough to go into this one blindly. I didn’t read the synopsis, I didn’t check out any reviews, I simply trusted that Seanan McGuire would deliver the same or at least a very similar type of story that I had enjoyed previously. Except with new threats, of course. And maybe a start of that romance I’m hoping for?

Toby is faced with a new kind of problem, namely that kids go missing. And not just Fae kids, either, at least one human girl as well. So, in order to get back her best friends’ children, some Cait Sidhe that Tybald is missing, and Quentin’s human girlfriend, Toby sets out to first investigate and then plan a rescue mission. Which is easier said then done when the kidnapper is none other than Blind Michael who wants to use the children for his Wild Hunt!
Entering Blind Michael’s land is hard, but getting back is even harder. Toby wouldn’t be Toby, however, if she didn’t dive in headfirst anyway and do her very best to save those children and maybe, just possibly, not die herself in the process. Which would be easier to believe in if she hadn’t just received a visit from a very portentous person…

This is my first time reading through the October Daye series and as I’m only three books in, I can’t say too much about the series as a whole. But I do like its episodic nature with a dash of overarching story. Except this time, that story didn’t really advance and it’s more of a monster-of-the-week kind of instalment. Which is also fine because said monster happens to be terrifying! I really enjoyed exploring this new side of Faerie, one that is decidedly not lovely, but quite dark and with more than one horror aspect to it. There are certain scenes that are pure nightmare fuel if you think about them too long, which led to another exciting adventure with Toby as our reluctant hero jumping headfirst into danger for the greater good.

The thing is, this adventure is kind of over at the halfway point of the book. I’m trying not to spoil anything here but let’s just say the quest part of the story is done. Well okay, there are some loose ends. Sort of. But the second half of the book felt mostly like a re-hashing of what had happened before, only slightly altered, and therefore didn’t hold my interest quite as much. The plot as a whole didn’t feel as thought out as in the previous two books.

Another small gripe I have is the characters. Am I the only one who doesn’t particularly like Connor and gets annoyed when he’s there? That’s not the gripe, that’s just an aside. My problem is that this is book 3 of a series. We have met most of the side characters already. I appreciate McGuire giving us gentle reminders of who everyone is and how they relate to each other (seriously, that’s worth gold when you let some time pass between books) but I don’t like that she’s trying to evoke the same emotions she did in previous volumes with the exact same words. The Luidaeg is super powerful, we know that. We also know that, although she could have killed Toby already, she didn’t because she seems to like her and who’s to tell a Firstborn what to do? So pretending like Toby asking the Luidaeg for something is this grand dangerous endeavour just doesn’t work. We know she’s not in real danger because, unlikely as it may be, the two have become friends and the Luidaeg cares for Toby. So the attempt at a doom and gloom atmosphere when visiting the Luidaeg just feel flat.

Unfortunately, I had similar feelings about Tybalt, a big favorite of mine. I do so hope he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole or dies in the next book or something (I honestly don’t know, please no spoilers). Mysterious and brooding and helping Toby out while pretending he’s not really helping her out but only acting in his own self-interest, he’s the kind of fictional dude I can root for. Except this time, he didn’t get to shine despite appearing several times. Where there used to be tension and atmosphere in the first books, everything had kind of sizzled out at this point.
I did love the new character of May and the way her relationship with Toby and the others developed over the course of this novel.

While reading this, I constantly had the feeling like this book was rushed. Not so much because the plot happened to fast, but because it didn’t feel like McGuire put the same love and care into this particular volume like she did with the previous ones. Once you’ve finished the book, there’s actually not that much plot. There are a lot of characters but many of them were shallower versions of their previous selves. So it was a very so-so read for me, with exciting parts, characters I liked, but also with plot lines that I didn’t care for or that felt contrived, with characters I liked from earlier novels but didn’t much care for this time.

So far, this was my least favorite Toby Daye book because of its plot and character issues and the fact that, in the second half, I kept rolling my eyes at Toby’s hero complex. That woman keeps trying to kill herself in creative ways. Sure, it’s usually to save others, so you can’t even be mad at her, but damn it, Toby, have a shred of self-preservation!

Also, the Shakespeare quote titles are so pretentious, I can’t get over it. Whenever the title drops in the actual book, I can feel how badly the author and/or publisher wanted to make it fit. Sometimes that works better than others but the connection between urban fantasy stories about a Changeling and Shakespeare’s plays isn’t something I can see. Every title drop just feels like McGuire wants to let her readers know that she has read Shakespeare and we should all be impressed because random lines from his plays pop up at random moments in her books with no emotional impact or deeper meaning whatsoever. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not impressed and I think the forced quote titles do the series a disservice. But hey, there are worse things to complain about. In the end, I only found this book okay but it will not stop me reading the rest of the series.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Really Good But Missing an Ending: Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

This is the second book by Rebecca Roanhorse that I’ve read and although I enjoyed it more than the first (Trail of Lightning), I got the same feeling I did then. That Roanhorse is about 10 years too late for her ideas to feel fresh or new, but that she’s a great writer nontheless. And one that’s getting better over time.

black-sunBLACK SUN
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: Saga Press, 2020
eBook: 464 pages
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Today he would become a god.

The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Black Sun is an epic fantasy novel just like they used to be, except it is inspired by South and Middle American cultures and religions. We follow three main POV characters plus one side character who occasionally gets his own chapters. First is Naranpa, the Sun Priest residing in the city of Tova where the four clans of the Sky Made live. Through Naranpa’s eyes, we learn a little bit of how their religion works, the different types of priests there are (one of them is literally assassin priests and I find that so cool), and why Naranpa is an unusual choice for a Sun Priest. Because in addition to the clans living on top the mesas that make up Tova, there are the Earth Born. Essentially, they are the poor people, living further down the cliffs, in the darkness.
Our second viewpoint character is the Teek woman Xiala who clearly likes to get drunk and sleep with beautiful women. This time, her partying got her into prison (not the first time, it turns out) and the only way to get out of trouble is to take on a crazy job sailing a ship across the open sea during a season when no sensible sailor would do that. But the prize is too good to pass up and so Xiala and her crew agree to take a man to Tova. For money and cacao and a ship of her own.
That man happens to be the third POV character and he is called Serapio. We actually first meet him as a young boy when his mother does something pretty terrifying to him because he has a great destiny. What exactly that destiny is becomes clear fairly early in the novel but I don’t want to give it away here. Serapio is blind and quite strange and he makes the crew more than a little uneasy…

As a fan of epic fantasy, I liked this book a lot but I must admit the story is mostly setup. With the exception of Serapio’s tale, the plot may advance but doesn’t really lead anywhere. We’re introduced to a rich world filled with many different kinds of people who speak different langauges (something I always appreciate in SFF books) and who have different cultural sensibilities. We also learn there’s quite a bit of magic in this world although not everyone seems to believe it to the same degree. Xiala’s people, the Teek, are said to be lucky sailors. Xiala can use her Song to quiet the sea or to control the waves a little bit. But she is also met with prejudice and suspicion.
The city of Tova has a lot to offer in terms of politics and religion so I was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn as much about that as expected. Every aspect of life in Tova that we learn about was intriguing and made me want to know more. Whether for pacing reasons or to reduce the word count, Roanhorse only gives us glimpses here and there, just enough to keep me hooked but never enough to fully satisfy my need to understand this world. Whether it’s the priesthood and their jobs, the way the city is setup, the dynamics between the Sky Made clans, or especially how the Earth Born fit into the whole system – I want to know more, more, more! On the one hand, this will ensure that I pick up the next volume, on the other, it’s dissatisfying when you’re only ever fed little tidbits of information.

I had the stranges time reading this book. Maybe some of you have read books that made you feel the same. It would go like this: I would pick up the book, read a few chapters, enjoy them so much that I wouldn’t want to stop. Eventually, of course, I did stop because life and such, and then I would… not want to pick it up again. I continued reading other books in the meantime, all the while not needing to know what happened next in Black Sun. The next time I did pick it up, the same thing would happen. I kept asking myself what my problem was. Why did I not feel the urge to continue when I put the book down? It was really great, after all! Well, I don’t have a clear answer, only a theory. And the theory is that while I enjoyed reading about these characters and this world, the story went along its merry way and didn’t offer much that was new or unexpected. I do so love to be surprised or shocked or delighted with a clever turn in the plot. And because so many people had praised the book so highly, I had expected more than “just” a very good but somewhat generic epic fantasy with a cool setting.

The biggest problem with this story is that it kind of spoils itself. Or, to put it differently, it raises certain expectations for the plot and then simply delivers on them. The first chapters tell you exactly what will happen (in one case it’s a flash forward, so there are no doubts) and then those things… happen. No surprises, no twists, not a story beat that couldn’t have been predicted from early on. Because Roanhorse’s writing is immersive and her characters compelling, that didn’t make the book any less fun. Only less of a standout in the genre. In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse writes that she was sick and tired of the endless quasi-European settings in Epic Fantasy and thus wanted to write something more diverse that shows how ancient peoples weren’t “primitive” at all but rich in culture, science, and religion. I’d say she succeded in that but I disagree with her assessment that Epic Fantasy is still mostly European-inspired. In the last decade, we have been blessed with so many diverse stories and interesting settings! SFF publishing has gone to many different places all over the world (not that there isn’t always room for more exploration) and Black Sun is simply joining what is already a vast selection of newer diverse epic fantasies. So I don’t consider it groudnbreaking – it would have been ten years ago! – but I do think it is a very good book.

My second gripe with the book, even though it’s a lesser one because I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It feels very much like the first part of a bigger story and can not stand on its own. Serapio’s story is the only one that offers a proper arc, with some flashbacks, a capital-D Destiny, and a conclusion of a sort. Naranpa’s and Xiala’s stories simply stop smack dab in the middle with things having been set up but no satisfying ending, not even much advancement of plot, in sight. Again, I don’t mind that so much because (a) I am used to reading longer series and waiting (sometimes for years) for the next volume and (b) I am going to pick up the next part when it comes out either way. Despite my weird not-wanting-to-pick-the-book-back-up thing, I finished it with mostly positive feelings. There could have been a bit more world building, a bit more story for Xiala and Naranpa, more time spent on flashbacks or characters’ back stories, but I feel confident that I will get all of that in the next book.
If you feel like the comfort of good old epic fantasy but you want a more diverse cast and a non-European setting, pick this up.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Good Start, Mediocre Rest: Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

I have this strange love/hate relationship with the Wayward Children series, although it tends to lean more towards hate than love. However, since these novellas keep getting nominated for Hugo Awards by Seanan McGuire’s loyal fans, I keep having to read them. Occasionally, a really good one comes up, but mostly, this series suffers from the big problem that it wants to do great things in too little time and thus ultimately falls flat (most of the time).

come-tumbling-downCOME TUMBLING DOWN
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 206 pages
Series: Wayward Children #5
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Eleanor West was fond of saying – inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once – that her school had no graduates, only students who found somwhere else to do their learning for a time.

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Again.


If you’ve come this far in the Wayward Children series, you will be familiar with Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins were first introduced in the very first volume, then we got their backstory and a glimpse into their world – the Moors – in the second book. As difficult a relationship as I may have with these books, Jack and Jill’s story was easily the most interesting one, and not only because we follow them for much longer than most of the others. So naturally, I was excited to see Jack again and maybe get to know the Moors a little better.

Come Tumbling Down starts out really well. Our protagonist (but not really) this time is Christopher whose world is called Mariposa. It’s full of bones and skeletons and, for some reason, butterflies? As usual, one shouldn’t question the portal worlds these kids come from too much. The important thing is it’s their world where they feel at home and while, for some, that can mean candy and rainbows, for others it’s bones and blood.

When Jack surprisingly returns to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she comes with a quest. Something terrible has happened, her homelands are in danger of being destroyed, and she needs help to defeat the Master and her sister Jill if she wants to return to her life in the Moors. The quest is a go – despite the “no quests” policy the school has (and which makes absolutely no sense when you think about it) – and Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Sumi follow Jack into her world to do some adventuring.

Let me first tell you the things I liked about this book. There are a few characters that I’ve come to care about, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the series in general. Sumi’s chipper yet occasionally morbid personality is definitely a win. Her humor is very much Seanan McGuire’s humor and since I happen to find her very funny, Sumi just works for me. When someone asks you if you weren’t the one that got killed a while ago and you answer with “I got better” I just can’t help but laugh.
I also found fascinating how McGuire showed Jack’s OCD. Given the situation she’s in – Jill switched the twins’ bodies – it’s easy to see how Jack is just barely keeping it together and working hard every moment not to go mad. Especially at the beginning of the book, this was done really well.

I read the first half of this book in one sitting because it was exciting, the characters were interesting, and the plot promised a visit to a cool if creepy world and a potentially epic finale. Sadly, during the second half, it became clear that the scope of this series’ idea is too big for what can be done in a handful of novellas. Shoddy worldbuilding is okay when you only mention someone’s portal world briefly, but when you send a group of people into it, flaws become obvious. The Moors just didn’t feel like a real world. They felt exactly like what their purpose is in these stories. A few small ideas thrown together that sound good but when you put people into that world, it all feels flimsy and unbelievable. Again, I am aware that this is not the purpose of these stories. If I want epic world building and intricate politics, there are plenty of other books out there, and Seanan McGuire definitely knows how to do world building. But because the world building here is almost nonexistent and the portal worlds themselves are simply backdrop for the character drama that’s going on, the character drama needs to be really good to keep me interested.

This was another aspect that starte out very well and then just kind of ebbed away towards the end of the book. Jack and Jill’s story is the king of all sibling conflicts but I felt that the other characters (most of whom I like) got in the way of it. The story shoudl have focused more on Jack and Jill, the Master and Mr. Bleak, and the way the Moors work. Although I gladly read Sumi’s quippy and sometimes poignant remarks, any line given to other characters took precious page space away from Jack. And so, by the end of the book, I watched things go down semi-interestedly but I wasn’t invested anymore. Jack’s OCD was barely mentioned anymore (that’s not a critique, I understand why that choice was made) and we spent too much time drifting off to other characters. The kind-of-but-not-really protagonist Christopher also never gets to be a fully fleshed out character because 200 pages is simply not enough.

The problem I have with all of these books, even the ones I enjoyed, is that they are trying to do a certain thing – and it’s very transparent what that is – but they never quite accomplish it. And that’s not for lack of skill on the author’s part, it’s simply that the format of novella isn’t suited to the endeavour because there just isn’t enough time to build up the characters, make them feel real, rather than just stand-ins for various diversity points.

This series gets praised for representation a lot and while I am thrilled that there are fantasy books about all sorts of diverse people, I’d still like these people to be more than their “condition”. I think it’s doing them a disservice to reduce them all to their sexuality, their gender identity, their disorder, their weight, their skin color… It’s clear that the point of these books is to show that all people can be heroes, regardless of how they are viewed in our world. The Wayward Children are all outsiders in a way, marginalized because they “don’t fit in” for various reasons. Giving those characters stories of their own, stories where they get to be the protagonist, is wonderful and it’s probably the main reason I am still – reluctantly – reading this series. But simply saying the cast is X or Y, like checking off an imaginary diversity list, doesn’t accomplish the goal of giving them a proper story and voice. To truly establish a character with every aspect of who they are – be that Jack’s OCD or Kade’s being trans – takes time. Time that simply isn’t there when you’re trying to tell a whole story in 200 pages. So as much as I commend McGuire for writing about these characters (and I want her to continue doing so), I also think novellas are maybe not the way to go. Even Jack, one of the most memorable characters so far, came across as a bit flat by the end of this book.

I remember nitpicking in the last instalment that the readers weren’t allowed to take part in the actual adventuring but only witnessed the aftermath and the quieter moments in between the exciting parts. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have complained because it turns out, the “adventures” in this series just aren’t very good. And I get it, that’s not what the series is supposed to be about. But even in a character-focused piece, if you’re sending your characters on a quest, at least make that quest somewhat interesting, make the stakes believable and high enough for us to care, and don’t just tell us the plan, then execute the plan, then be done with it. That’s boring!

This book also reminded me of the worst instalment yet (the sugary one) and the most annoying, least likable character of them all. Cora, the former mermaid and incredibly self-absorbed wayward child, is mostly just annoying and bitchy, but when she actually does take action, it’s sure to make life even harder for everyone else. Cora believes everything is about her, even though this is clearly Jack’s story and taking place in Jack’s world. But no, every chance she gets, Cora is convinced things revolve around her somehow. Every piece of dialogue, even about the most random things, is surely an attack on her person, and everyone is definitely spending their entire time thinking and saying mean things about her. Wow, I really can’t stand that girl and I hope she soon finds a doorway back to her underwater world and we never have to read about her again. Just stay out of other people’s adventures if you’re going to make them all about yourself. She doesn’t deserve how nice people are to her because, frankly, she is useless and offended at things that have nothing to do with her. And she constantly accuses her friends (!) of making fat jokes when nobody even gives the tiniest shit about her weight and nobody at the school would ever make a hurtful joke about her because they are all outsiders and know what that’s like. At one point, she says something accusingly for which absolutely nobody but herself is responsible yet she presents herself as the victim of her evil, evil friends who dragged her into this (she wanted to come!) and for whom she almost died (she endangered herself of her own volition while Kade actually risked his own life to try and save her!!!).
I assume the 7th Wayward Children novella will be all about her and I’m curious if McGuire manages to make her at least a little sympathetic by then. Otherwise, I will just have to skip that book.

All things considered, I loved the first half of this novella. I didn’t like the second one all that much, and the ending – while I technically find it ends in a satisfying way – didn’t carry the weight it could and maybe should have. Because there are too many characters crammed into this little book, the emotional impact got lost over the course of the story. I didn’t dislike it but I didn’t love it, which will probably make it end up somewhere in the middle of my Hugo ballot this year.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

divider1

This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

Cute but Kind of Distant: Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe #WyrdAndWonder Book Review

Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?

ELATSOE
by Darcie Little Badger

Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). 

Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.

There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…

First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.

I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.

As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.

But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.

As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Middle Book Syndrome: S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper

I was looking forward to the sequel to The City of Brass very much, especially because the first book had a few evil twists at the end. While Chakraborty proves once more that she is a great storyteller and can spin tales of political intrigue really well, this book does very little to move the overall plot forward. It’s got classic middle book syndrome, which doesn’t mean it’s boring. Just… not as exciting as it could have been. But again, it delivers an ending that makes it hard not to pick up the next book right away.

SPOILERS FOR CITY OF BRASS BELOW!

kingdom of copperTHE KINGDOM OF COPPER
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2019
eBook: 640 pages
Audiobook: 23 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Alizayd al Qahtani didn’t make it a month with his caravan.

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.
Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe.
Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.
And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

After a short prologue, we jump five years into the future with our protagonists scattered over different places and established in very different roles than in the first book. Nahri, now married to Muntadhir, has become an acoomplished healer unter the tutelage of Nisreen, although she is anything but free. With her two closest relationships gone for years (Ali exiled into the desert and Dara killed), Nahri has become friends with Nisreen and also got to like her sister-in-law Zaynab a lot more.
Ali, meanwhile, now has some crazy superpowers. He can detect water, even in the middle of the desert. He now lives in Bir Nabat, an oasis, and his life is pretty okay. That is, until the plot calls for him to return to Daevabad, of course.
Dara…. well, nobody really thought he was dead, did we? Dara is returned to his body by none other than Menizheh, Nahri’s mother. And the people he hangs around with are planning a full attack on Daevabad so Menizheh can take back Suleiman’s ring and the power the Geziri have stolen from her people.

That’s the setup for Kingdom of Copper and although there are some sub-plots that keep things interesting – such as Nahri wanting to re-build a former Nahid hospital and also start healing shafit – the main story this book tells is of these three characters starting out in different places and with opposing factions of djinn, coming together again. As you can imagine, the reunion isn’t exactly a party…

What I liked about this book, much like in the first one, was the characters and the nuanced political situation. It took me a bit to remember who all the factions were, who was hating whom for what reason, and who had stolen power from which bloodline. The great thing is that there are no real good guys here. There are some pretty bad people, come to think of it, killing others for being shafit (djinn and human mixed blood). But I couldn’t say that any one character or group has completely good motives and even if they do, their methods are… ethically questionable, to say the least.
Menizheh, Nahri’s mother, interested me the most. Because Nahri has no idea her mother is still alive and one of the most powerful people at that, I was excited to learn more about her and of course see the two of them meet. Menizheh wasn’t the likable lost mother type I was hoping for, however. And while that means I didn’t like her very much, I appreciated that her character felt so real. She’s been living without her daughter for years, after all, and she is following her own plans. Why should she suddenly get teary-eyed at the thought of meeting her kid again?
I particularly loved the dynamic between the Geziri princess and princes and how we got to know them better. Ali is a well-established character but Muntadhir and Zaynab got to shine in this book. They each interact with Nahri and with each other and every scene shows a new aspect of their personality and their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil anything but it’s fairly obvious that Muntadhir has a little more than feelings of friendship for Jamshid. And Zaynab has more depth than what we got to see in the first book.
There was entirely too little Dara in this book for my taste and what we do get to see of him didn’t feel like the Dara from the first book. He’s suddenly turned into this naive, gullible guy who sets himself up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

It’s hard to say much without spoiling, but there’s quite a bit of violence in this book. What with Menizheh’s people planning a large scale attack on Daevabad, traitors at court, and tempers running high among the Daevabad population, there are terrorist attacks, brutal killings, poison, assassination attempts, and more. While these scenes were all exciting to read and not all characters are safe, they did very little to push the plot forward. Much like the rest of this book.

Things really get started at the end of this book when secrets that were revealed reach their climax, when plans are executed, when Nahri has to make quick decisions to save the people she loves. A lot of stuff happens and it’s big stuff that will have big consequences. I suspect the next book will lead us to yet another completely new situation for our characters. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the huge twist at the very end. As much fun as I had reading this book, I don’t know why this little plot needed over 600 pages. Everything this volume did was set up things for a hopefully super exciting, fast paced climax. I’ll find out soon.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good