V. E. Schwab – A Gathering of Shadows

If you ever want a prime example of middle-book syndrome, this is it. V. E. Schwab has created a wonderful world in A Darker Shade of Magic, one that deserves to be explored in more depth, and with characters that I couldn’t get enough of. So my hopes were high for this second volume to get more world-building, more character development, more magic. And… I guess all of these things are there, it’s just that there’s no actual story surrounding them.

A Gathering of Shadows Final

A GATHERING OF SHADOWS
by V. E. Schwab

Published by: Tor, 2016
Hardcover:
Series: A Darker Shade of Magic #2
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Delilah Bard had a way of finding trouble.

It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift – back into Black London.
Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games – an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries – a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.
And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

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Lila did it! She’s on her way to become a pirate on Captain Alucard’s ship and she is exactly as Lila-like as I remembered her. I’ve been waiting a year for a reunion with these wonderful characters and, let me tell you, Lila’s entrance is bombastic. A Gathering of Shadows starts out strong, at the same time showing us what our favorite thief has been up to as well as introducing new characters and a bit more of Kell’s world. Sadly, this is where it goes downhill.

The blurb and the beginning of the book promise a big magical event – think Triwizard Tournament of Red London, with lots of competitors and magic used like in The Last Airbender. I was super excited to read about this, especially when it becomes clear that both our heroes snuck into the tournament as competitors. However, this event does not happen until well into the second half of the book. The same goes for a reunion between Kell and Lila. I understand that building tension is a good thing, but believe me, hundreds of pages of dangling that glorious moment in front of my face, when I know it’s going to happen eventually, is really annoying.

Instead of giving us the same fast-paced exciting funride she did in A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab lets her plot meander. This is the mother of all middle books. It takes ages to get going, clearly sets up a new threat but doesn’t progress it until the last chapter, it gives us a handful of great character moments and some battle scenes that were way too short for my taste. Add to that the cliffhanger at the end and you have a book that should not exist the way it does.

All of the actual plot could have easily been told in flashbacks while the overarcing story continues. If you edit this book down to only the necessary bits – and I’m including character development and world building scenes here as well – it would have been maybe 150 pages long. The rest is frilly decoration, keeping back story for… I don’t know why actually. But if you remember the thrilling joy A Darker Shade of Magic gave you, this book is almost a slap to the face.

But. I can’t say anything bad about the characters. I just love Lila and her frankly insane ideas. Her disregard for her own safety baffles me but it makes her an exciting person to follow. And she does grow in this book, not only because she discovers her own magical abilities and just how far they go, but also on a personal level. It was always Lila against the world but now there are people she cares about. Possibly even better than her is the introduction of Captain Alucard. What a character! I adored him from the first moment he entered the book, but I completely fell in love with him when we find out that there might be romance in his future. Please, please, let there be romance in his future and let it be the one I’m hoping for (no spoilers, so you just have to trust me here, it’s a good one).

As much as Lila gets to grow, this isn’t a good book for Kell. Of course the aftermath of the first book doesn’t make life easy for him. But Kell used to have a spark, he used to be a smuggler. An honorable smuggler, sure, but he lived dangerously and he was a multi-layered character. Now, not so much. The tensions in the royal family disappear, mostly because the king and queen make it clear to both Kell and Rhy who is important to them and who they consider a son. It’s heartbreaking, really, even though the thought was always there, in the back of Kell’s mind. But apart from the Elemant Games and the heart-stopping last chapters, nothing much of consequence happens to Kell.

All of this leaves me rather disappointed. I’m sure the third book will be better, because it had an entire novel building up steam for it. And the second half of A Gathering of Shadows was fun to read. The magic battles, the scenes when characters finally see each other again after a long time, the ending when many useless chapters of impeding threat come to a conclusion… it’s all good. The dialogue is snappy, I adore the new character, and I just love the world Schwab has created. But the reason I still kind of liked this book is mostly based on my love for its predecessor. A Gathering of Shadows is not a very good book, not even a very good second part of a trilogy. It doesn’t progress the plot, it meanders constantly, lingering on useless moments, holding out on the readers for just a little too long, and it ends with a cliffhanger, which I simply think is cheap but which was also obvious as, unlike in the first book,  there is no real plot arc for this book to stand alone.

I’m convinced the next book will be better even though I’m worried that Schwab has to cram all the plot she didn’t give us now into one book. There’s also a lot of character work still to be done as we only got teaser moments so far. But with such refreshing characters, even when they wait around an entire book for the plot to pick up again, I can’t really hate the book. Yes, I am sad that it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but at the same time I got to see Lila and Kell and Rhy again, and that’s worth a lot of brownie points.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

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Top Ten Tuesday – Ten Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed

This week’s topic of Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) is just up my alley. There are many books that I like while reading them, but then, a few months later, when I think about them, I have very different feelings about them. The same thing happens in reverse. Certain books don’t seem like much when I read them, but they grow in esteem, they get stuck in my mind, I think about them long after reading them. Because this has definitely happened to me, I picked some examples of both changed-for-the-better and changed-for-the-worse books. I only came up with seven examples, though.

Seven Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed

old man's war1. John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

Here’s a book that was a lot of fun while it lasted. However, not even long after finishing, I couldn’t remember the characters’ names or, indeed, many plot points. The fact that so very, very little of the plot or characters stuck with me makes me like the book less in retrospect. I now think of it as fluffy, forgettable science fiction. Nonetheless, I do know that reading it was enjoyable.

2. Mira Grant – Feedfeed

Similar (but not quite) to the Scalzi book, I enjoyed some of this zombie novel. It was incredibly slow to start, most of the plot points were sorely predictable, but the second half of the book was written really well, so I kept turning the pages. Now that some time has passed, all that book makes me think of is that it has one original idea – and a beautifully clever title – but otherwise lacks any depth.

3. Ellen Kushner – Swordspointswordspoint

I really have to re-read this book, especially with the Serial Box stories that were recently published. Swordspoint is the opposite example of the two books above. I read it in English when I was still rather shaky on my feet concerning the language, and that is an injustice to this book. Kushner’s language is beautiful and demands to be savored, something I just wasn’t able to at the time. But whenever I think back on the book, certain scenes stand out so clearly in my mind and make me want to go back to the world of Riverside. This book definitely grew on me over time and I intend to re-read it soon.

4. Alaya Dawn Johnson – The Summer Princesummer prince

I gave this book a pretty good rating right after I read it. But this is the prime example of books that’s don’t want to let go. I still think about the themes of the story, see the pyramid city of Palmares Tres in my mind, and happily remember the joy this book brought me. It was a good book when I read it, but I believe I did have some criticism. Now, all negative aspects have been forgotten (which doesn’t mean they aren’t there, just that my brain decided to filter them out) and all that remains in my mind is a perfect gem of a novel.

5. Naomi Novik – His Majesty’s Dragonhis majestys dragon

I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t like the first two Temeraire books very much. After having read – and ADORED – Uprooted, I’m starting to think it may have been my mood at the time. The parts of the book I can remember all sound good in my mind and I really don’t know what my problem was when I first read it, so I am making plans to re-read the two Temeraire books I have already read and then give the rest of the series a try as well. So here’s a book I didn’t like much when I read it but which I now think I should have loved.

6. Miyuki Miyabe – Ico: Castle in the Mistico1

I had a lot of problems with this book and I still remember them vividly. But, now that ploughing through the boring parts is in the past, I have to appreciate the author’s original ideas all the more. Thinking back, I just leave out the boring bits, and instead only remember the good parts, which makes me like this book a whole lot more than I did while I was actually reading it.

7. Juliet Marillier – Daughter of the Forestdaughter of the forest1

Due to the hype surrounding this book – at least in the places I go to for reviews and recommendations – I may have expected more than there is to it. So there was some disappointment when I finally read the book and it wasn’t what I expected. But over time, I have come to think of this story more fondly. Yes, it was a quiet book, but there are so many layers to it – and it is exactly these layers that keep coming up when I think about books I loved.


That’s it from me. What are some books that you changed your mind about long after reading them?

Stephen King – Wolves of the Calla

A nice little thing on Goodreads is that, when you mark a book as “currently reading”, then change your mood and put it back as “to read”, Goodreads remembers when you started reading and even where you stopped. This function showed me just how long it took me to finish this fifth Dark Tower book, or at least how long I put it aside before finally making it through. It’s almost three years, in case you’re curious…

wolves of the calla

WOLVES OF THE CALLA
by Stephen King

Published by: Hodder, 2003
Paperback: 771 pages
Series: The Dark Tower #5
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Tian was blessed (though few farmers would have used such a word) with three patches: River Field, where his family had grown rice since time out of mind; Roadside Field, where kaJaffords had grown sharproot, pumpkin, and corn for those same long years and generations; and Son of a Bitch, a thankless tract which mostly grew rocks, blisters, and busted hopes.

Roland Deschain and his ka-tet are bearing south-east through the forests of Mid-World on their quest for the Dark Tower. Their path takes them to the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But beyond the tranquil farm town, the ground rises to the hulking darkness of Thunderclap, the source of a terrible affliction that is stealing the town’s soul. The wolves of Thunderclap and their unspeakable depredation are coming. To resist them is to risk all, but these are odds the gunslingers are used to. Their guns, however, will not be enough…

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So Roland and his ka-tet are on their quest to find and save the Dark Tower. In this fifth book of the series, they arrive at a place called Calla Bryn Sturgis whose population is visited by the Wolves of Thunderclap every once in a while. These wolves always do the same thing. They take their children and give them back roont (ruined) – they come back strangely tall and bulky, with their minds not fully intact. They’re never the same and they die very early. Now Roland could just walk on, continue without bothering with these people’s problems, but that’s just not like him. Plus, it all comes together and it all has to do with the Tower. So the ka-tet stays and decides to fight the Wolves.

I loved this idea so very much that I expected to rush through this book the way I did through the previous three (I’m one of those who don’t much like The Gunslinger). Alas, in the Calla, they meet a man named Callahan who relates his entire tale to them. And this tale takes SO. DAMN. LONG. and is so incredibly boring at times, that it was the reason I put the book away for years. What happens in the Calla, in the present, with Roland trying to win people’s allegiance, Susannah dealing with her own demons, Jake learning to understand betrayal from both sides – this was all fantastic and, just as you’d expect from Stephen King, written really well. Sure, things take a long time to happen but I like the way King builds up tension, creates his characters and settings and then brings us the big show-down.

Now Callahan’s story is important to the plot and I don’t have any useful criticism of it other than it bored me out of my mind. I was so glad when it was over. Suddenly, the pages flew by again, I couldn’t put the book down and I feared again for these characters that have become beloved friends to me.

One of the more intriguing things in this novel is the way technology weaves into the world. While Shardik was a relic of times long gone, here we are introduced to Andy, essentially a still-functioning robot who lives in the Calla. Although I know that technology was once present in this world, it still felt weird to have a robot play with the children of the Calla. There is also a fair bit of character development, not just in Roland but his entire ka-tet. Every one of the protagonists feels like a real person and seeing how they’ve changed from what they once were into… well, gunslingers, was just a joy to read. Seeing them work together as a team, communicate in glances and gestures as much as in words, it makes me dread the next two books all the more because I get the feeling King is going to kill off at least one main character. Just a gut feeling – I hope I’m wrong.

The idea of the stones and travelling doors is continued in Wolves of the Calla and again, doesn’t seem to fit into Roland’s world but somehow seamlessly works. King is mixing all sorts of sub-genres together and somehow makes it internally consistent. Time travel, westerns, science-fiction and epic fantasy all combine to create this wonderful thing. There were no great twists or surprises in the story surrounding the Wolves but there was one serious WTF moment at the end that makes me question the entire universe Stephen King has created in his Dark Tower series. I can’t possibly say more than that without spoilers but I re-read that passage to make sure I understood it right.

All things considered, this was my least favorite Dark Tower book because I feel Callahan’s story could have been shortened a great deal. The main plot, dealing with the Wolves, although atmospheric and an opportunity for King to show off his world-building skills, was fairly straight-forward and went as expected (by me). But there’s no denying that Stephen King is a great writer who knows what he’s doing and the language he created, especially the way the Calla folk talk, was entertaining enough. So not great, but good. On to Song of Susannah which promises an event that makes me cringe already…

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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The Dark Tower Series:

  1. The Gunslinger
  2. The Drawing of the Three
  3. The Waste Lands
  4. Wizard and Glass
  5. Wolves of the Calla
  6. Song of Susannah
  7. The Dark Tower
  8. The Wind Through the Keyhole

Tanith Lee – White as Snow

Wow, this book was such a downer! I had thought Robin Hobb puts her characters through hell but Fitz’ fate is almost comfortable compared to what Tanith Lee does to her version of Snow White and the evil stepmother. This was one of the first books I read this year but writing about it turned out to be harder than expected.

white as snowWHITE AS SNOW
by Tanith Lee

Published by: Tor, 2000
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, in winter, there was a mirror.

Once upon a time there was a mirror. . . .

So begins this dark, unusual retelling of the story of Snow White by the writer reviewers have called “the Angela Carter of the fantasy field”—a whole novel based on a beloved story, turning it into a dark and sensual drama full of myth and magic.
Arpazia is the aging queen who paces the halls of a warlord’s palace. Cold as winter, she has only one passion—for the mysterious hunter who courts the outlawed old gods of the woodland. Coira is the princess raised in the shadow of her mother’s hatred. Avoided by both her parents and half forgotten by her father’s court, she grows into womanhood alone . . . until the mirror speaks, and blood is spilled, and the forest claims her.
The tragic myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, stolen by the king of the underworld, is woven together with the tale of Snow White to create a powerful story of mothers and daughters and the blood that binds them together, for good or ill. Black queen. White maid. Royal huntsman. Seven little folk who live in the forest. Come inside, sit by the fire, and listen to this fairy tale as you’ve never heard it told before.

Once upon a time there was a mirror, and a girl as white as snow. . . .

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Tanith Lee doesn’t mess around, does she? I had never read anything by her and didn’t know what to expect. One chapter in, I knew I had fallen into a dark, terrifying version of “Snow White” – one that is as far from Disney as you can get. We follow Arpazia, still a girl at the beginning of the story, on her journey to become the evil stepmother obsessed with her own beauty and jealous of her own daughter.

White as Snow retells the story of Snow White but mixes in Greek mythology, a combination that works surprisingly well. It explores feminist issues, adds a hint of Persephone and Hades, but all with a distinctly dark, sinister tone. The story begins with 14-year-old Arpazia who is captured and raped by the conqueror Draco. From this horrible event springs her daughter Candacis, nicknamed Coira, this story’s Snow White. Arpazia is easily the most tragic character in this story and nobody can fault her for despising the child that was conceived in a terrible, violent deed. From that moment on, Arpazia lives as if entranced. She is traumatized by the events of her childhood (and her adult life, for that matter) and despite becoming queen, the only happiness she finds is with the forest king Klymeno – or Orion – with whom she has a love affair.

Coira grows up unloved among servants and seems just as removed from the world and as cold-hearted as her mother. Both women are fascinating characters, even if it’s hard to call them likable. Because of their distance and lack of emotion it was hard to identify with them (not that I wanted to!). I watched them more like figures on a stage rather than putting myself into their skin – which was probably the author’s intent. The violence, distance, and hatred that these two have to live through is not something I’d want to experience – Arpazia and Coira deal with the trauma in their own way, but each removes herself from others emotionally. If you haven’t guessed by now – this is an utterly depressing, dark book that shows barely a glimpse of hope until the very end.

white as snow detail

What interested me most were other aspects of the novel. The juxtaposition of Arpazia and Coira – old and young, ugly and beautiful, the hating and the hated – and the way fairy tale elements have been incorporated into the story were simply stunning. Even the seven dwarves show up, although they are not all male and none of them really likes Coira. The more you advance in the story, the more Greek mythology takes center stage, especially when Coira meets “the king of the underworld”, a man (not very subtly) named Hadz. He, in turn, aptly names her Persephah.

Which leads me to another interesting idea. A lot of characters use more than one name, depending on the role they play or who they’re dealing with. Candacis/Coira/Persephah is just the most obivous example. Arpazia calls herself Lilca at one point, Klymeno/Orion is another one. The dwarves all have “stage names” and we only learn Stormy’s true name (which is also from Greek mythology and very, very fitting).

It is difficult to say whether I liked this book. My kneejerk reaction is: Yes! It was excellently written, passes the Bechdel Test many times and generally focuses on the female characters and their development. On the other, the readers are confronted with a lot of rape, psychological and physical violence, so that I have to correct myself and say: No! I did not like that! This is a book that gives you a bad feeling in your stomach but at the same time enthralls you with its ideas and the mash-up of mythology and fairy tale. “Snow White” may be its basis but the novel deals with issues that the Grimm brothers probably didn’t care much about. A woman’s role, especially when she loses her beauty by committing the crime of ageing, the balance between old beliefs and new religion, the love (or lack thereof) between mother and daughter. Tanith Lee doesn’t tell her readers what to think or how to feel about these issues, she simply confronts them with characters who have been through hell and whose personality is a clear product of their past. I just couldn’t hate Arpazia for pushing her daughter away. Yet I felt for the girl who so desperately wanted a mother’s love.

The big symbol of this fairy tale is and always will be the mirror. White as Snow features that mirror but whether it is truly magical or Arpazia is slowly gliding into madness is never explained. But mirrors in general play a big part, both real and symbolic. Arpazia looks at Coira and believes to see herself when she was young. Coira thinks that Hadz is the male mirror image of herself. The novel is full of symbols and references that connect it to its fairy tale origins. White snow, red blood and black trees appear over and over, of course.

After a few hundred pages of darkness and depression, it was a relief to get a somewhat hopeful ending. I will definitely try more books in Tor’s Fairy Tale series but I very much doubt I will re-read White as Snow. It was too hopeless and the two protagonists too distant. This was a good book, no doubt, one that questions the tropes of the fairy tale, one that explores how the female characters came to be who they are, but it is by no means an enjoyable book. Going from bad to worse, from one horrible event to the next, watching these characters on an endless downward-spiral of violence and destroyed hopes, made this into the opposite of a comfort read. I like it when authors show fairy tales for the dark things they are, but I must admit White as Snow may have been a little too dark, a bit too bleak and hopeless for me.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Other reviews:

Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little book but the cover and premise both intrigued diversiverse3me enough to go buy it, no waiting on the wishlist required. And since it’s #Diversiverse time, this was the perfect moment to read the story – also, I’ve never read anything by a Malaysian author before and that needed to be remedied. Zen Cho’s story had some aspects that I loved and others that left me very disappointed.

perilous life of jade yeoTHE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO
by Zen Cho

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 81 pages
Standalaone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.

 

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For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr – until she pillories London’s best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom – and her best chance for love.

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Jade Yeo is a young Chinese woman, making her way in 1920s London by writing for a newspaper. She deals with her insufferable (and very rich) aunt and learns, for the first time, what it is like to fall in love and fall in lust.

Since it’s the first thing mentioned in the synposis, I need to adress the time and setting of this novella. The Roaring Twenties are somewhat of a buzz word that makes me happily buy a book. Except there isn’t really much roaring or twenties in The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Sure, the time period becomes somewhat apparent in how women are viewed by society, how Jade’s insufferable aunt things Jade should behave, what is considered proper and what makes a scandal. But for everything else that’s there, this could as easily have been set in the 1950s.

The story is set in London and as a Chinese woman, Jade has to deal with some degree of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. I don’t know if it’s because of her practical, witty character that we don’t see much of it or because the author didn’t want to turn this novella into a novel, but I expected Jade’s life to be much, much harder. A young, unmarried woman whose proper name people can’t pronounce, whose family values are completely different from what she sees on an everyday basis… there should have been more problems for Jade than just paying the rent.

Taking into consideration, however, that the novella is written as Jade’s diary, she may just not be telling us everything there is to know. And  I must say that I adored her voice. She is a practical, surprisingly modern woman with a sense of humor and a hunger for life. When famous author Sebastian Hardie makes advances on her, she just goes with it. Because hey, adventure! She knows she isn’t in love but having an affair is just so damn interesting. The problems I had with the time and the setting are probably due to the fact, that Hardie – as well as his wife – are equally practical modern people. The arrangement that married couple has would be frowned upon by a lot of people, even by today’s standards. For clever, adventurous Jade to fall into the hands of such a freedom-loving couple is unlikely and lessens any drama there could have been given other circumstances.

But the writing and characterisation are spot on. Jade has something of a Jane Austen in her, with her clever observations, her quick comebacks, her overall view on humanity. She’s charming and funny and at the same time vulnerable and real. And she has fun with words which makes me love her infintely more.

A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.

This is a novella that basically reads itself. It happily goes along, without much risk for the protagonist or much impact. Jade may think she’s in trouble but that same trouble is resolved within a matter of a few pages. Zen Cho hints at some heavy subjects but because everything turns out well for our heroine, and everything is so easy, they are somewhat lessened. Come to a different country all aloneperilous life of jade yeo, having (and enjoying) sex as an unmarried woman,  and unwanted pregnancy are just a few things that feel like they were drizzled over the story to give it some depth. Except they don’t feel like issues because EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE SO DAMN EASILY. As soon as a problem arises, somebody goes “Oh that? Don’t worry, here’s a neat little solution.”

At the very end, when Jade realises that she has fallen in love (rather predictably, one might add), that’s the only time where cultural differences really present obstacles. Of course Jade is determined to overcome them and make their love work somehow, but at least we get a glimpse of the difficulties they will face on the way to marital bliss. And even that discussion is over within minutes. But at the very least, there isn’t an immediate, pretty solution. They talk about the issues at hand and promise to find a way to make things work. But we, the readers, know it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to alienate people. Traditional, conservative families whose child wants to marry someone from a completely different culture, will be up in arms. They know this, we know this, and there’s no easy way out.

There were so many things I loved about this story, the protagonist’s voice the foremost among them. I can’t really say anything bad about it except that everything was too easy and happened too fast. A novel-length version of this story with some stakes for the characters would be perfect. If the solutions to Jade’s problems weren’t as quick to arrive, for example, that would have already made this more interesting. If her future hangs in the balance for a mere (short) chapter, I won’t get overly excited. If, however, her uncertainty and at some points, her helplessness were to last longer, that would make it memorable. That would make her little troubles real problems. I commend her for wanting to do everything herself and not relying on the help of others but again, help does come and it pretty much gets her out of any situation without much fuss.

This was only a nice and very quick read that keeps your heartrate at a steady level. No sizzling romance, no danger for our heroine, but a lot of interesting people with surprising views on love, sex, and culture. It’s a peasurable read but not one that will stay with me for long, I suspect. Who would have thought I’d ever say it but here it is: I need a little more drama in my fiction. If I don’t feel with the characters I’m not likely to remember their stories for long.

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FTF Book Review: Rosamund Hodge – Cruel Beauty

It’s Fairy Tale Frenzy, everyone! Who would have thought my faith in fairy tale retellings could be restored so easily? A few years ago, I had a very bad hand at grabbing books written for young adults, but I seem to have gotten over that streak of bad luck. For FTF, my first two books have both been really good.

cruel beautyCRUEL BEAUTY
by Rosamund Hodge

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2014
Ebook:
352 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

First sentence: I was raised to marry a monster.

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • Beauty and the Beast
  • a hint of Pandora and other Greek myths

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Synopsis

Graceling meets Beauty and the Beast in this sweeping fantasy about one girl’s journey to fulfill her destiny and the monster who gets in her way-by stealing her heart.

Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.
Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom – all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him. With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she’s ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.
But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle – a shifting maze of magical rooms – enthralls her. As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex’s secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

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Review

Oh, this started out so well. Nyx dreads the day that she will be married off to the Gentle Lord, the demon in the crumbling castle on the hill, a tyrant who has kept her entire people locked up under a parchment dome, their world cut off from the rest of the universe. Heavily based on Greek mythology, with some added magic – Hermetic sigils – a group of people have made a plan to kill the Gentle Lord, and Nyx is front and center of that plan.

cruel beauty cover detail

I loved the atmosphere of this novel. It starts out quite dark, with Nyx questioning herself and her sacrifice, and with her very human feelings of jealousy towards her sister. Despite loving Astraia dearly, Nyx can’t help but feel treated unfairly for having pulled this lot instead of her sister’s comfortable future. Our heroine is, in general, a swirling mix of emotions, and not all of them a good. In that, she stands out from fairy tale princesses, because unlike the all-good, all-pure girls who usually save princes, Nyx is utterly human. She wants to do good, of course, but she also has moments of cruelty, with no ulterior motive other than enjoying a little bit of revenge. It made for a complex character that I loved to follow through the scary castle.

And then the romance happened. This sounds like I’m somehow opposed to her falling in love – I am absolutely not. I was on the edge of my seat during the moments between Nyx and Ignifex because I never knew whether they were going to kill or kiss each other. Their conversations weren’t particularly clever, but there was an underlying threat of danger and a ton of unresolved sexual tension. So the story pushed some of my very favorite buttons.

Unfortunately, it all goes up in flames of cheesiness and lazy writing. Like Sunday in Enchanted, it doesn’t take Nyx very long to fall in deep, deep love with not only Ignifex, but also his shadow, Shade. Despite being a fairy tale retelling (and “true love” happening even faster in actual fairy tales, and with even less of a basis), it still bothered me. Can’t literary heroines admit that they have a crush, that they feel slightly tingly when he enters the room, that they may have fallen in lust? No, it’s always true love, right away, from the second or third kiss onward.

Which leads me to where the writing started becoming lazy. There are a lot of kisses in Cruel Beauty, and while the first few ones – plus the ones that were important for plot-reasons – were well-described and butterfly-worthy, after a certain point, the author seemed to just have given up. Suddenly, all we get is “and then they kissed” or “suddenly he kissed me”. A throwaway line here and there to make sure we know that Nyx and Shade or Ignifex are still a thing.

The main story arc, however, doesn’t merely revolve around a romance/love-triangle. Nyx is trying to save the world! And the Gentle Lord’s castle is as much a mystery as the question how to destroy him. Killing her husband after actually falling in love with him presents an added difficulty, to say the least. But Ignifex is wrapped in secrets within secrets, and I kept reading as much to find out these secrets as for the resolution of the romance.

It’s a clever twist on Greek mythology, but I was still somewhat disappointed in the ending. Not only are the secrets revealed with a lot of exposition, the solution comes too easily after a lot of useless work. What’s more, Nyx worked the entire time to figure out the riddle that is Ignifex and his castle, and in the end has to be told everything anyway. She is presented as a clever, active young woman with a capacity for independent thought and yet, everything she does learn comes from someone else. Shade reveals things, birds reveal things, other beings give her hints and – in the end – straight up tell her the solution via convenient vision. All she had to do was walk around the house a lot. No thinking involved. Which makes me sad because I’m sure, if given the chance (by the author, that is), Nyx could have easily figured it out for herself. That requires careful planning and foreshadowing of course, and that’s the area the author still has to work on.

There were parts of this book that I loved. The imagery is gorgeous and would make a stunning movie, animation, illustrated novel, what-have-you. The background of Nyx’s world, how Greek mythology and the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale intermingle, works beautifully. But then there were the parts I hated. Not just disliked, hated. Nyx’s fickleness, her way to trust people much too easily, especially for someone who grew up the way she did. The writing that grew lazy towards the end, the big solution and wannabe-plot twist. It’s difficult to decide yay or nay with this book.

But for its originality and the darkness of its tone, I lean just slightly towards a positive opinion. Seeing as this is Rosamund Hodge’s debut novel, I am curious to find out how she does in her next one. There is a lot of potential for greatness and I wouldn’t want to miss it. Especially since the next book will be a spin on Little Red Riding Hood.

RATING:  6/10  –  Good

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Books by Rosamund Hodge:

  • Cruel Beautygilded ashes
  • Gilded Ashes (a companion novella set in the same world that retells “Cinderella”)

Nalo Hopkinson – Sister Mine

Last year, I was pretty blown away by Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber as well as her short story in Unnatural Creatures. I couldn’t wait to read more by this amazing author, especially anything that involved gods and mojo and a cover as stunning as this one.

sister mineSISTER MINE
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by:  Grand Central Publishing, 2013
Hardcover: 346 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “Score!” I said to the scruffy grey cat sitting on the building’s loading dock.

We’d had to be cut free of our mother’s womb. She’d never have been able to push the two-headed sport that was me and Abby out the usual way. Abby and I were fused, you see. Conjoined twins. Abby’s head, torso, and left arm protruded from my chest. But here’s the real kicker; Abby had the magic, I didn’t. Far as the Family was concerned, Abby was one of them, though cursed, as I was, with the tragic flaw of mortality.

Now adults, Makeda and Abby still share their childhood home. The surgery to separate the two girls gave Abby a permanent limp, but left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo. The daughters of a celestial demigod and a human woman, Makeda and Abby were raised by their magical father, the god of growing things–a highly unusual childhood that made them extremely close. Ever since Abby’s magical talent began to develop, though, in the form of an unearthly singing voice, the sisters have become increasingly distant.
Today, Makeda has decided it’s high time to move out and make her own life among the other nonmagical, claypicken humans–after all, she’s one of them. In Cheerful Rest, a run-down warehouse space, Makeda finds exactly what she’s been looking for: an opportunity to live apart from Abby and begin building her own independent life. There’s even a resident band, led by the charismatic (and attractive) building superintendent.
But when her father goes missing, Makeda will have to discover her own talent–and reconcile with Abby–if she’s to have a hope of saving him . .

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This is going to be one of those love/hate reviews. If I were a better organised person, I would split it into two neat parts, but the way my brain works I’ll just throw the good, the bad, and the ugly at you all mixed up. Which is pretty much how this novel works, too.

Makeda’s story starts out with her seeking independence by moving out of the house she has shared with her sister. She moves into a building called Cheerful Rest (yes, really) whose inhabitants aren’t only a pleasure to meet but have so much potential for later. However, all except the attractive Brie are dropped completely. One side character gets to show up once more for a brief cameo but Brie’s bandmates, whom I liked immediately, are never seen again. But I liked Makeda enough to overlook that waste of character potential. Being the daughter of a human mother-turned-seamonster and a celestial (a sort of demigod), her life is far from ordinary. However, when she and her conjoined twin sister Abby were separated at birth, Makeda got two working legs, and Abby got all the magic. You see where this is going.

The two sister eventually grew apart, because jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, etc. I would have loved if this had been the center of the novel. Two sisters who used to be closer than anyone can even imagine, and who have to find a way to grow close again. But here’s the thing: This novel had no focus. It starts with one thing, then jumps into another (and don’t get me wrong, both these things may be awesome), then drops both of them in favor of something completely different.

So we jump from one type of story – Makeda’s coming-of-age, if you will – into another. There is even one chapter that shifts character perspective. One sole chapter right at the beginning of the book introduces a little girl named Naima, whom I loved immediately but who – again – never really shows up after her job in that chapter is done. Then there are infrequent flashbacks that show us Makeda and Abby’s past, that tell the story of when they were born, their first sexual experience with a pair of demigods (and also each other). It all felt very haphazard and just needed some structure.

When their father disappears suddenly, the sisters and their friends must try and find him – so now there is a McGuffin, some sort of red thread to follow. But even on their quest, for lack of a better world, they still seem to forget about it and suddenly Makeda is all about finding her mojo again. If she has any. At random, family truths are revealed, by Abby or the girls’ awesome Uncle Jack. Jack, the god of birth and death and some other things in between, was a fantastic character who gets to show up pretty consistently throughout the book. I was also rather fond of Lars, an inspirited instrument… look again at that book cover. See the guitar? Yeah, that’s Lars.

As great as the ideas were and as much as I loved the writing style, I still don’t quite know what the author wanted to achieve with this book. Is it supposed to be the story of two estranged sister growing up and trusting each other again? It kind of failed in that. I found the bickering and sisterly fights utterly realistic but there weren’t any moments of bonding as far as I’m concerned.  Or was it maybe supposed to be a coming-of-age and coming-into-your-magic story for Makeda? Because that plot also got lost along the way. The growing up part is what started the book, with Makeda thinking about how to pay rent on her burger flipping job. After a while, that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore and it’s all about I MUST HAVE MOJO TOO – WHAT IS MY MOJO?!

sister mine snippet

There is also a very understated potential romance developing between Makeda and Brie. I quite enjoyed that part because it’s just there on the sidelines and never takes center stage. A smile here, a compliment there… What I did find a bit strange was that Abby and Makeda were once lovers. Or did I read that wrong? Now I would totally dig if either or both of the sisters had been lesbians. Having a foursome with their two celestial god-cousins (who are about 10000 years older than them) – fine, I’ll suspend my disbelief. But having sex with your own sister? Regularly? Uhm… that made me feel uneasy, to say the least. If gods do it (just look at Greek mythology) it’s different than if humans do it.
Apart from that, I loved the way Abby and Makeda deal with sexuality. It’s something they enjoy, there’s no problem in loving more than one person at once, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking straight or queer relationships. But the incest still leaves me queasy.

Add to all of this yet another subplot of switching parts when Abby suddenly loses her voice before a big music show, and you’ve got the crazy melting-pot that is this book. It comes complete with motorcycle chases, flying carpets, and feeding oranges to your polyamorous seamonster mother.
Despite the lack of structure and order, Nalo Hopkinson’s writing style is still exquisite. She gives her characters personality just through the way they speak, her protagonists are Women of Color, people with disabilities, and generally people of all shapes and sizes. As a bonus, she doesn’t shy away from a bit of humor. Uncle Jack made me laugh on more than one occasion, and even Brie gave me a chuckle or two:

Tiny LED bulbs in the sconce lights lining the walls of the entranceway. The sconces themselves were black mesh in the shape of small pouched triangles. “Those seem kind of Martha Stewart for you,” I said, pointing at one of them.
“So I have a gentle side. I made those things out of screen door mesh, though, all manly-like.” He made fake bodybuilder muscles.

The characters and prose have earned all my love but the plot was all over the place. I would have really liked, after this rollercoaster ride, to end up with a bigger picture that makes sense. Instead I got snippets of great story ideas, some of which never got to develop their full potential. I’m still hoping for a spin-off novel about that little girl Naima. The fact that she grew on me so much during the short chapter that she shows up in speaks for Hopkinson’s writing ability.

While it was too chaotic for me, this is still a good book. I look forward to reading more by Hopkinson. I only hope the next novel I pick has more focus.

MY RATING: 7/10  – Still very good

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Other reviews:

Miyuki Miyabe – ICO, Castle in the Mist

Sometimes, I discover things backwards. As I’m participating in Worlds Without Ends’ Women of Genre Fiction challenge and have discovered great, great authors, I came across this little book called Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe. The review was favorable, the plot sounded intriguing, so I went out and got it. The author mentions right in the preface that this is a novelization (of sorts) of the eponymous PlayStation game. I had no idea and, honeslty, found it a bit off-putting. Novelizations (of movies or games) usually aren’t that good.
Then a few weeks ago, I found a used copy of the remastered PS-game of Ico and its companion The Shadow of Colossus – of course I bought it and started playing. After an hour, I knew I was going to give the book a chance. The atmosphere and story provide wonderful fodder for a gripping fantasy story.

ico1ICO: Castle in the Mist
by Miyuki Miyabe

Original title: Ico: Kiri No Shiro
Published by:
VIZ Media, 2005
ISBN: 1421540630
Paperback: 370 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The loom had fallen silent.

When a boy named Ico grows long curved horns overnight, his fate has been sealed – he is to be sacrificed in the Castle in the Mist. But in the castle, Ico meets a young girl named Yorda imprisoned in its halls. Alone they will die, but together Ico and Yorda might just be able to defy their destinies and escape the magic of the castle.
Based on the video game filmmaker Guillemo del Toro (
Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) called a “masterpiece”, Japan’s leading fantasist Miyuki Miyabe has crafted a tale of magic, loss, and love that will never be forgotten.

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The PlayStation game starts when a young boy with horns growing out of his head gets locked up in the Castle in the Mist as a sacrifice.  The story kicks off when he frees a girl, dressed all in white, from a cage in the tower. The book lets us know what happened before in what was probably my favorite part of the entire story.

Ico didn’t live in a vaccum before he became the sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist. He had a family, friends, and a village full of people who knew and cared about him. It was in these first chapters that I found my favorite character. Toto, Ico’s best friend, is determined to save Ico and, if it isn’t too difficult, save the world from the evil powers of the Castle in the Mist. He is proactive, he is lovable, and is a convincing young boy with a good heart and a slightly befuddled brain.

Once Ico gets locked up in the Castle – this is where the game starts – the story slows down by definition. Ico is alone and even when he finds Yorda, caged at the top of the tower, there isn’t much dialogue because Yorda doesn’t speak. Even when she does, he can’t understand her language. Descriptions of the two wandering through the castle follow. Some are almost a play-by-play of what you have to do in the game to get out of a particularly riddling room and as such, weren’t very good storytelling. They weren’t even very good as a game guide. Miyuki Miyabe tried to spice it up by the visions that haunt Ico whenever he touches Yorda’s hand, or that he sees randomly in the vast halls of the Castle. Still, the second part of the novel was hard to read and bordered on boring.

ico and yorda

In the third part, my interest peaked again. We get to see Yorda’s side of the story and, finally, other characters are involved. This peek into the past offers not only answers to some of the most pressing questions, it also shows Yorda – though isolated and essentially locked up in the Castle – surrounded by other people. It involves politics to some degree, more mysteries, danger and – YES – dialogue. I rarely find myself aching for dialogue this much, but in a book like this, it was a welcome change. Although this part focuses mainly on Yorda, her feelings, questions, and memories, I again found myself drawn to the side characters. The life they breathed into the story was much needed and kept me going for a while longer.

My biggest gripe was the amount of description. That’s the danger of turning a video game into a novel… the author seemed to feel the need to describe Ico’s surroundings in such detail that the readers know each part of the Castle as they saw them in the game. The problem is obivous. This leads to page-long descriptions of any given room’s layout, including chains hanging down from the ceiling which can be used for climbing up. In fact, details that – in the game – are there as a riddle for the player to figure out, aren’t really all that important for the plot. When Ico explores a cave by a waterfall for what seemed like 20 pages, I was close to giving up. I don’t need to know where exactly he puts his feet, when he takes a jump from which wall to which, what hanging vines help him swing from one rock to another… these are things that are intriguing in a game, where you actively play the protagonist and need to think in order to work these issues out. In a prose story, it slows the plot down to an almost-standstill.

Which leads neatly into my second biggest problem. Ico, though the hero of this story, is an incredibly passive character. Sure, he runs around the castle, looking for ways out, but he always – ALWAYS – has to be told what to do. He doesn’t discover any of the answers himself, he is either shown them through visions or by other characters. The queen, for example, reveals a great deal of her plans because she thinks herself safe. She didn’t come across as stupid, just overly confident.

ico and yorda climbing PS3

copyright @たきたて

I admit I feel the urge to cut the author some slack. I only played the game halfway through (because Yorda is not just helpless, she’s useless!) but there isn’t really much information in-game that can be used for a novel. As such, Miyuki Miyabe did a commendable job, giving the Castle, Ico, and Yorda a backstory that made sense in its own way. Of course, the characters are painted extremely black and white – so literally, in fact, that the queen usually appears wearing pitch black dresses, and Yorda being clad in all white. But that’s a problem I’m willing to forgive. Naturally, the hero is going to be good. In the game, we are playing him, and we’re the good guys…

My feelings are rather mixed. I absolutely loved the completely made-up bits, I loved the invented side characters and the mythology Miyabe came up with. I hated the endless descriptions. That’s as simple as I can put it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, but I was enchanted enough to pick up another novel by the same author. One that came completely out of her imagination, without a bothersome video game to get in the way of good storytelling.

RATING: 6/10  –  Good.

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Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

I have been insanely busy lately, so this slim and heavily illustrated children’s book by Neil Gaiman came at the perfect time. Finally, I could sit down with a book and read it in one sitting without such annoying things as work interrupting me.
It was fun, it was silly, and I would have loved to have read this as a child.

fortunately the milkFORTUNATELY, THE MILK
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN: 0062224077
Hardcover: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence:  There was only or­ange juice in the fridge.

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”
“Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”
Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

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When a motherless-for-the-weekend family find themselves in lack of any milk for their breakfast cereal and tea, one brave father steps outside to buy some at the corner shop. The children find that it takes him surprisingly long to return. What they don’t know, of course, is that their dad went on a wacky, time-travel adventure featuring dinosaurs, aliens, wumpires, and piranhas. The father’s absence is explained in full and reminded a bit of The Usual Suspects for kids.

This is clearly a children’s book. Not only is it full of illustrations and has fun with fonts, but it is also a very simple story that is probably as much fun being read to as reading for oneself. That said, I commend Neil Gaiman for putting so much time travel in this book. Sure, you never have to remember for longer than a few pages what time the protagonists have just left and when a second version of themselves suddenly show up to steal the milk – or give it back. But, being an adult, I scrutinized the logic behind Gaiman’s time travel (and don’t go telling me time travel can’t be logical in its own way) and it all holds up.

There are some wonderfully quirky bits, some parts that will be funnier to adults than to children, and – my favorite thing about the entire book – gorgeous illustrations. The UK and US editions of Fortunately, the Milk are illustrated by different artists. While you will find Chris Riddell’s wonderful art in the UK version (I loved his images in The Graveyard Book to bits!), the US version shows off Scottie Young’s amazing skill. His drawings are intricate and full of flourishes and twirly bits… I stared at them for minutes at a time.

fortunately the milk piranhas
Scottie Young’s characters are little more than stick figures with big heads on top, but their faces are expressive and wonderful and just fun – just look with how much love for detail the hair is drawn. The only thing that would make this an even better book would be full color illustrations.

Now that I got all of the praise out of the way, let me tell you what disappointed me a little. Neil Gaiman is a master of his craft. His books are atmospheric and dark, they cleverly play off genre tropes, they show us old things through a new lens. This, however, wasn’t any of that. I enjoyed it because of how it celebrates the joy of storytelling, of making things up, of going along with silly ideas that children suggest – all of these things are important to me, and the fact that a big name like Neil Gaiman can reach millions of people with it makes me happy. If your own children ever come up with a tale like this, don’t shut them up. Let them tell you about the stegosaurus in the hot air balloon!

But for all of that, it was maybe too simple, maybe a bit too predictable. I honestly can’t say if I feel that way because I am not the target age group or because I am a spoiled book brat. Having read such amazing children’s books as Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland novels or Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda books, I have come to expect more of children’s novels than a silly adventure with everything and the kitchen sink.

To me, children’s books truly show a writer’s talent. And an author who manages to write a children’s book that can entice both children and adults is a true genius. Neil Gaiman charmed me for an hour, but ultimately, the story will be gone from my memory very soon. The pictures… now, the pictures may stick around for quite a while longer.

RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.

ocean at the end of the laneTHE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: William Morrow, 2013
ISBN: 0062255657
Hardcover: 181 pages

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.

Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.

ocean at the end of the lane 1And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.

To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.

There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.

In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…

THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

RATING: 6/10 – Okay