Fantasy Chick Lit: Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

Depending on what kind of a reader you are, you may enjoy being challenged by every new book or you may prefer comfort reads, books where you essentially know what you’re going to get. Or you’re a mix of both or something in between. I lean more towards new and challenging reads but, boy, do I love a nice comfort read when I’m stressed. This book was not good literature in any way, it wasn’t good fantasy either, but it told a fun story that was easy to follow, with exciting scenes, a nice romance, and a fast moving plot. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right kind of book.

poison study1POISON STUDY
by Maria V. Snyder

Published: Mira Books, 2005
eBook: 431 pages
Series: Poison Study #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.

About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace– and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…

Yelena is taken from the dungeon where she has spent the last year to finally be executed for the murder she’s committed. But destiny offers her another chance to live, at least for a while. The Commander’s former food taster has died recently and a replacement is needed. The Rules (this mysterious document/code of conduct comes up many times, don’t expect it to be explained or make sense or anything, just roll with it) state that the next in line for the gallows should be offered the job. And, as she is kind of attached to life, Yelena accepts. After a trial run where her new superior – and the commander’s confidant – Valek tests her ability to even discover whether food is poisoned, Yelena turns out to be perfect for the job. And thus starts her career as food taster and this story kicks off.

Let me say, before I get into anything else, that I had a lot of fun reading this and I would actually recommend it. But I’d recommend it with caveats, or for when you’re in the same mood I was in, or when you’re just into this kind of book. Because if you’re a reader of SFF for the same reasons I am – namely discovering the world through a science-fictional lens, reading about wild ideas, wondrous magic, epic battles, fantastical cultures, futuristic visions, … – then this is not the right book.
But if you want a quick, fun adventure where magic appears when convenient, where things are simple and straight forward, and where you know more or less what’s going to happen, then pick this up. The best analogy I can make is a rom com. They’re all essentially the same but still different enough to have a favorite and to keep you entertained. So, now that I’ve hopefully got across that I had fun reading this, my critical brain nonetheless needs to tell you why it just isn’t a good book.

Everything is super simplistic and shallow.
Seriously, pick your poison (haha), it has no depth. The characters are mostly blank with one or two personality traits and no agency at all. They exist merely to further Yelena’s story, they don’t have lives or hopes or dreams outside of being a sidekick to Yelena.
Yelena is, naturally, perfect. She is the kind of heroine I loathe! She’s good at everything, either right from the start or after very little training. Her friends teach her self-defense and fighting with a staff and she masters this art after only a few weeks because… well, the plot demands that she’s really good at fighting at that point. The fact that her tastebuds are also amazing and can immediately (!) detect the slightest differences in certain foods is far from believable, especially in someone who has spent the last months in a dungeon, being fed tasteless slop. But my motto while reading this was: just roll with it!

The world buliding is just as weak and sloppy. There used to be a king, but he was overthrown by the Commander and now the kingdom is divided into Military Districts, led by Generals. They abide by super strict rules (that Code thingy I mentioned above) that allow no lenience whatsoever. Killed someone in self-defense? You gotta die. Killed someone to save a baby’s life? Too bad, you’re still going to be hanged. None of this is ever explained, there’s not even an attempt at creating a consistent believable world here. Rules, cultural idiosynchrasies, celebrations, etc. come up when the plot demands it and disappear as easily. That’s why this is, objectively, not a good book. But who cares?
There’s also magic in this universe and – can you guess it – our heroine secretly has magical powers. This isn’t a spoiler as anyone will guess after the third chapter when she accidentally uses magic. Now I am perfectly happy with the lack of a magic system, because magic should be wild and uncontrollable, otherwise it would just be science that we don’t understand (yet). But Snyder does put some rules on her magic, although they, like everything else in this book, feel like she came up with them spontaneously and they don’t have any impact whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything. New rules appear as soon as it’s convenient, without ever having been mentioned before.
That’s what makes this book feel so much like an early draft. Ideas pop up whenever they probably popped up in the author’s head. Now to make a book better, you should try and foreshadow a little or at least leave tiny hints or mentions of things that will be important to the plot later. Don’t let your readers believe they are in a world with only rule X and then, in the last quarter of the book sudeenly pretend that rule Y has always existed.

As for the plot, I’m not really sure what the point is and why the book is called Poison Study, but it was exciting enough. Yelena’s new chance to live gets the whole thing rolling, but we soon learn that she has a Dark Past (TM) which is also the reason she’s killed a man and was in the dungeons in the first place. Nothing about her past was particularly surprising, except for the one time where she explicitly contradicts herself – saying in an early chapter that a certain thing never happened and then much later in the book explaining how that very thing not just happened but was the catalyst for the murder… That’s just super lazy writing/editing!
But whatever, her new job is to taste the Commander’s food, try and not find her superior/assassin/poison master Valek so damn attractive, make friends with a few people, and discover a whole conspiracy. There are training montages, bullies to fight, spies to discover, friendship, betrayal, a fire festival, acrobatics, surprisingly little poison tasting, sneaking around the castle, and some battles.

On the one hand, everything in this book is just too easy and it felt like the author didn’t know how to make certain things feel important. Yelena’s past, for example, follows her everywhere. She clearly has some trauma (as is only understandable) but only about her past. She strangely mourns a stranger’s death but never so much as mentions the death of a character who was a friend. Because the characters are all so shallow, I guess the author forgot to have her heroine be sad about one of them passing. There is also this whole enmity going on between Yelena and another character that is simply dropped somwhere around the middle of the book. Said character isn’t even mentioned after that although they came across as rather important at first. It’s all very haphazard and serves one purpose only: to tell the story of an author-insert protagonist who is beyond perfect and finally realizes just how amazing she really is. She finds an attractive man who (of course) is all aflame for her, she makes friends who would immediately die for her, and she saves the country just by being the only (!) person clever enough to figure out things that will be clear to the reader from chapter 3 onwards.

So to reiterate: Despite this book actually being a literary trainwreck, I had fun reading it! Who cares that the language changes from old-timey to strangely modern within the same sentence? Who cares how simple and ridiculous everything is. This is a feel-good book where you know everything will end well, things will turn out alright for the protagonists and the only characters who find a bad end you never really cared for in the first place because they were just cardboard cutouts. Sitting down for a few hours having mindless fun can be exactly right, especially during stressful times. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes, we need this pure escapism. Maria Snyder gave me that with this book, and although I have no desire whatsoever to find out how Yelena’s story continues, I will keep this series in the back of my mind for a time when I’m stressed out and don’t want to think but just want to go on a silly adventure with a perfect heroine.

MY RATING: 4 – Pretty bad!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

 

2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

Holy smokes, where have all these months disappeared to? I could swear it was July a week ago, but here we are, at the beginning of October (speaking of which, I have to find me some witchy reads for Halloween). The summer months have probably been my best reading months in years, if not ever! I participated in the NEWTs Readathon which meant I first had to catch up on the OWLs readathon. Both of these were crazy months where I got a lot of reading done. I’m happy to announce that among the many books I read were also a few retellings.

What I’ve Read

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker was one of the group reads for this readathon and I absolutely loved it! From the very beginning, this quiet tale of a Golem and a Jinni grabbed me. I enjoyed following them as they found their footing in a new world, within new cultures, and as they became friends. But while this is mostly a quiet story with lots of focus on characters, there is quite an epic ending. I cannot recommend this enough. The language is beautiful, the characters are so engaging, and the story itself had me close to tears several times.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread was quite a different experience. It may not be a precise retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but it uses many of the fairy tale’s motifs. Gingerbread is the most obvious ones, but there are also breadcrumbs, houses in forests, and friendships that last through the ages. Most of all, it is the story of a mother and daughter, of how the mother grew to be who she is, why the daughter has turned into who she is and how their past connects them as much as their present. The family relations in this tale get surprisingly complex, but once I found my way into this rather strange story, I was enjoying myself a lot. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea. If you like magical realism (randomly talking dolls, anyone?) then definitely try it, though.

I also finally read The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. It was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for, expect shorter and with less depth. We follow the story of Loki, from his brith as an Asgardian god to his demise – all narrated by himself, in the arrogant, hilarious manner you’d expect. I loved the narration, the silly nicknames he gave the other gods, the tricks he played on them and especially his relationship with Thor. In fact, I loved it so much that I would have liked more of the same. More chapters of Loki’s exploits, his travels with Thor, his trickery and cleverness. But Harris tells a proper story that leads straight to the end of Asgard. From a proper critic’s standpoint I would probably command her for writing a proper beginning and end, but as I read this simply for enjoyment, I felt a little let down by how things ended. Not that it came as a surprise but it was slightly anticlimactic. However, I will very likely pick up the sequel.

I also read The Ice Puzzle by Catherynne M. Valente – a retelling or reimagining of The Snow Queen from the point of view of different cultures. As this is one of Valente’s earlier works, it pretty much has no plot but tons of gorgeous language and beautiful imagery. This novella was like falling into a dream. Things don’t always make sense, you don’t know who all of the characters are, but you just roll with it. And what unfolds is snippets of a Snow Queen, of a young girl trying to save a boy, of mirror shards and pieces of ice stuck in an eye. I didn’t love this as much as I do Valente’s other work, but it was definitely a new kind of retelling for me.

I finally finished The Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch. This was a great book but unfortunately, I started reading it at a bad time. You have to be in the right mood for this in order to fully appreciate it. I put the book away for several months and when I picked it back up, I was exactly as excited as I should have been from the start. It is the conclusion to Vasya’s story. It brings together the elements from the first and second book beautifully and even mixes a lot of real historical events and people into Vasya’s fictional story. Once I got into the atmosphere  of this book again, I loved every page. The Bear and the Nightingale is still my favorite of the trilogy but this was definitely a worthy ending.

Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places landed on my TBR pile because it won a Mythopoeic Award – a goldmine for retellings of myths, fairytales, and altogether books that I like. Reading it was a strange experience. While I read it, I was quite engaged, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted the characters to figure out how to break the fairy curse at the heart of this story. But whenever I put the book down, I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. I also felt that the most interesting characters weren’t featured enough. Instead, the story is told from one POV, and he was one of the least interesting people in this book. It was a fun read with many nods to fairy tales and fairies in general, but now that I’ve thought about it for a while, I’d rate it only okay.

My favorite retelling of the last few months and probably the whole year was Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. It retells East of the Sun and West of the Moon with a few changes and one mind-blowing twist. Instead of a polar bear, Echo, our protagonist, has to live with a white wolf in an enchanted castle. The castle itself feels like a character – there are so many rooms to discover and so much magic hidden inside of it. And it has a library… a magical library. Need I say more? I also loved that this story manages to take the heroine’s really, really stupid decision from the original fairy tale and make it feel sensible. The villain was fantastic, the last third of the book went by in a blur of action and adventure, and because I was rooting so much for Echo, that twist at the end completely wrecked me. I’m not ging to say any more about it, just please pick up this book if you like fairy tale retellings. It is a true gem!

And another highly recommended book, this time for graphic novel fans: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples. This is Snow White from the stepmother’s perspective, except Snow White isn’t the fairy tale princess we know. Without spoiling, I’ll only say that the roles of villain and heroine are flipped in a very original way. It has all the things you know from the original tale – poisoned apples, mirrors, skin as white as snow – but the way Gaiman turned the story on its head, nothing should work but everything does. All the beats of the original tale fit perfectly into this new version. This is a short comic book but it’s also surprisingly dark. The artwork is gorgeous (if you’re into the style, obviously) and had me so impressed I read the book two times in a row.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow
    Although this doesn’t fit into any of the slots left on my bingo card, I have started this story featuring Aztect gods. I have been buying Moreno-García’s book for a while, but this is the first one I’m finally going to pick up.
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning
    This is a Jane Eyre retelling set in space. Since I’ve already read The Lunar Chronicles, my options for this bingo slot are slim, but I quite look forward to this. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a while so I’m quite interested in how this author deals with the story and makes it work in a futuristic setting.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now. A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red plus Swan Lake sounds too good to miss. Since it features sisters – with all the love and rivalry that comes with it – I am even more intrigued. And I’ve also never read anything by McLemore but she keeps being recommended, so it’s about time I found out if I like her writing.

General Thoughts

I did not realise I’d read that many retellings. To be honest, I didn’t focus on this challenge at all during the last three months, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me how many retellings crept into my reading. With The Golem and the Jinni I got my first bingo on the Bingo Card, but I’m still planning to fill the entire card so there are still some books left for me to discover. The prompts are getting harder and harder to fulfill. While I do own some books that fit into the remaining categories, I’m not particularly in the mood for some of them at the moment. We’ll see how it goes but I am more motivated than ever to actually pull off my crazy plan.

In all honesty, at the beginning of the year, I thought my goal of reading books for all the prompts was way too ambitious but I like big goals. 🙂 I would have been fine with a single bingo, but now that I’m this close to finishing the entire card, there’s no way I’m stopping.

How’s your reading going? Are you (still) participating in this challenge? Which books can you recommend for my missing bingo slots – I’d really appreciate your recommendations!

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.

divider1

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

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.

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  • 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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