A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

Hopeful Space Exploration: Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate

I have read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer books – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Record of a Spaceborn Few – one of which I loved and one of which bored me for two thirds only to deliver a great ending. So while the author has been somewhat hit-or-miss for me, there is no denying that her hopeful outlook on a science-fictional future is lovely to read and a welcome change from the darker fantasy books out there.

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE
by  Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019
Ebook: 144 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.
Adriane is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.
Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.
Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky’s first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

Ariadne is part of a four people crew who is out to explore the universe. Well, parts of it at least. Ari tells her story in first person, documenting everything from waking up from torpor as they arrive at their first planet, to what they find there. Becky Chambers managed to create a believable world with a surprising amount of things to discover, considering how slim this book is.

To make up for lower or higher gravity – depending on the planet – the crew adapts their own bodies to work well in their current environment. So waking up after torpor is, first of all, checking out how your own body has changed. Although that’s only a small part of this book, I found it fascinating. Ariadne may be a pretty regular looking woman on one planet only to wake up super buff on the next. And that doesn’t even take into consideration all the things that change inside her body. We get to know her and her crew mates as much by watching their reactions to their changed bodies as through their actions and dialogue. And they are a lovable bunch!

As the chapter headings will tell you, each one deals with a different planet and I found the exploration of those planets almost as exciting as the crew. They are a group of passionate scientists who clearly adore what they do. Imagine them jumping around in circles like kids when they discover signs of life, or spending hours upon hours looking through microscopes, checking and re-checking data collected from the atmosphere, or simply cleaning and maintaining their tools. These things may sound boring but Ariadne’s voice talks about these things with so much love that you can’t help but get swept up in it.

The plot doesn’t seem to be very surprising or exciting at first. The astronauts go and look at planets, and sure, they discover interesting things there. But because their mission is to visit a number of planets, further study will have to wait for the next crew. They do get updates from Earth every so often – updates which are seriously delayed of course, so the “news” our group receives are always several years outdated because sending information that far into space takes time. Finding out many years after it happened that your hometown has been destroyed, however, does not make the impact any less  hurtful. When messages from Earth stop arriving altogether, the crew knows something is wrong. Although whether it’s that funding for their mission has stopped or something worse has happened, they have no way of finding out.

The planets visited during this story vary greatly and made for a great reading experience. They start out on an ice planet, covered entirely in clear, frozen water. Some of their galactic stops offer a rich environment with plenty for our scientists to discover and study. Some are great, others not so much. One planet in particular was a complete horror show and Chambers deftly conveys the feelings Ariadne must have had during her experience. Things don’t always go smoothly, either, and while the personal relationship between the two men and two women are beautiful, certain situations put a strain on them. I can’t tell you much more without spoiling things and because this book is so thin, almost everything I do tell you is spoilery.

One last thing I need to mention is the ending. At a certan point, you can kind of see where the story is going. Knowing the characters, there are only so many options they would be willing to pursue. Becky Chambers is known for her optimistic, even utopian fiction about alien cultures living together, where everybody is just so damn nice and respectful all the time. While that may be a much needed change from the many grimdark novels of the last decade, it can also feel a little too cheesy, too happy to be believable. The characters in this book also get along beautifully and are almost too perfect to be credible humans (come on, nobody is resistant to mood swings or lashing out unintentionally towards others) – but the ending of this story managed that fine balance between optimistic and realistic. It is the only conclusion to our heroes’ journey that makes sense and it left me with a bittersweet feeling and the knowledge that I’d just read a really good book.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Nnedi Okorafor – Broken Places & Outer Spaces

I have read many of Nnedi Okorafor’s books and loved most of them, so there was no question that I’d read her non-fiction book about how she came to be who she is today. Prior to this, I had no idea she had suffered paralysis at a young age and that it was at least partially responsible for her becoming a science fiction writer.

BROKEN PLACES & OUTER SPACES
Finding Creativity in the Unexpected

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Simon and Schuster/TED, 2019
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First line: The beach was just the way I loved it: empty, its waters comfortable and clear, a few sand crabs dashing around.

A powerful journey from star athlete to sudden paralysis to creative awakening, award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor shows that what we think are our limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths.
Nnedi Okorafor was never supposed to be paralyzed. A college track star and budding entomologist, Nnedi’s lifelong battle with scoliosis was just a bump in her plan—something a simple operation would easily correct. But when Nnedi wakes from the surgery to find she can’t move her legs, her entire sense of self begins to waver. Confined to a hospital bed for months, unusual things begin to happen. Psychedelic bugs crawl her hospital walls; strange dreams visit her nightly. Nnedi begins to put these experiences into writing, conjuring up strange, fantastical stories. What Nnedi discovers during her confinement would prove to be the key to her life as a successful science fiction author: In science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks.
In Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Nnedi takes the reader on a journey from her hospital bed deep into her memories, from her painful first experiences with racism as a child in Chicago to her powerful visits to her parents’ hometown in Nigeria. From Frida Kahlo to Mary Shelly, she examines great artists and writers who have pushed through their limitations, using hardship to fuel their work. Through these compelling stories and her own, Nnedi reveals a universal truth: What we perceive as limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths—far greater than when we were unbroken.
A guidebook for anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is an inspiring look at how to open up new windows in your mind.

When I started reading this book, I felt almost embarrassed at how little I knew about an author whose work I love so much. All I’d  known about Nnedi Okorafor was that she’s from Nigeria and writes fantastic books. This memoir gives a great insight into how she became the writer of such briliant books as Who Fears Death, the Binti  Trilogy or Akata Witch.

Nnedi tells of her childhood as a star athlete with a multitude of sporty career options. She also had a curved spine which – doctors told her – could be fixed easily in an operation with only 1% chance of paralysis. So teenaged Nnedi undergoes that operation because it will spare her many years of physical problems in the future. As you may have guessed, Nnedi’s operation is that one percent and she wakes up from anesthesia and can’t move her legs. What follows is one of the most impressive tales I have ever read. Naturally, while reading, I put myself in Nnedi’s position and although I don’t know how I would react in her situation, all I could think of was utter despair. And I’m not even an athlete the way she was. I don’t think any able-bodied person can imagine what it’s like to have your world, your goals, your future plans shattered like that. But instead of falling into despair, Nnedi did something amazing. She started writing!

But this book is about much more than Nnedi’s paralysis. It tells of a childhood and adolescence in a loving family but in racist surroundings. It also shows Nnedi’s unbreakable spirit in the little stories of other people whose “brokenness” has helped them grow beyond what they could have imagined. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s possible miscarriage and her creation of the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or Beatrix Kiddo’s tragic story in Kill Bill – these were interesting bits of information that teach you that life doesn’t have to end when bad things happen. These things can even be opportuinities.

There are also many tidbits in here that readers of Okorafor’s fiction will recognize. Whether it’s medication-induced hallucinations of giant bugs, the concept of “treeing”, or the masquerades – all of these things made it into the science fiction books I’ve read and loved. It felt like an Easter Egg hunt that let me say “Oh, so that’s when she thought of that.” every few pages. It also gives her novels some context and makes them even more meaningful than they already were. For example, it made me see Sunny’s albinism and her inability to play football  during the day (because of the sun) in a different light. Not being able to pursue your hobby because your body won’t let you is something that Nnedi experienced first-hand. So although she doesn’t outright say so in this book, I believe this may have played a part in her creation of Sunny and Sunny’s own disability that actually turns out to be a strength in Akata Witch.

Nnedi does eventually regain the use of her legs, but not like before. I learned about proprioception, which is the ability of our brains to know where our legs are, even when we can’t see them. If that sense is out of whack, walking becomes something you have to concentrate on, rather than just doing it instinctively, without looking. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of that – think about driving a car when you can’t feel the brake pedal under your foot! Or walking in darkness. So this book opened my eyes in more than one way. It taught me about conditions I had never heard of before and although I don’t know anyone who is or used to be paralysed, I hope this new information helps me understand them better.

The thing about this book that stuck with me the most was definitely the hopeful tone. Again, I believe every single person deals with these things differently, and I can only go by how I think I’d react. And although I’d like to think of myself as brave, I don’t think I would have Nnedi’s strength. It made me appreciate her as more than an author. I may not know her personally, but if I ever get the chance to meet her, I would love to shake her hand and tell her how damn impressive I think she is. Not just because she didn’t let her paralysis take her down but because she took this incident and turned it around, she made something amazing of it, she used it to fuel her creativity and wrote stories that touch people all over the world.

If there is anything about this book that wasn’t perfect, it’s probably its lack of length. It gives you the basic story of how Nnedi turns “brokenness” into something powerful, but I’m sure a lot of details were left out. The book is no less powerful for that  but I honestly would have liked to read more of it. More stories of Nnedi standing up to teenage bullies, more about her siblings and parents, more information about how she started writing and what inspired her. But that’s just my subjective wishes. This book, the way it is, is amazing and I recommend it to everyone, whether you already know and love Nnedi’s fiction or whether she’s an author you’ve never read.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

An Icy Fairy Tale: T. Kingfisher – The Raven and the Reindeer

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading one of T. Kingfisher’s retold fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll have already bought all the rest. But just in case you don’t know the brilliant mind and practical heroines of T. Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger), then let me tell you why you should absolutely give her a try.

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2017
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?
A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, not so much because of the setting or the idea of having a piece of magical glass mirror stuck in your heart or eye, but because it was the one fairy tale I read as a kid where the girl goes out on a proper quest, where she meets witches and robbers, and has to be incredibly brave to save her friend. I also discovered a Finnish movie version that was, to me, utterly perfect. The musical score still breaks my heart and the imagery pops up in my mind whenever someone mentions The Snow Queen. So I’m invested in this story!

I have loved everything T. Kingfisher has written, so I was quite surprised when the beginning of this book didn’t really grab me. It read like a proper fairy tale – but like the bad parts of a fairy tale. Descriptions of plot, characters that are little more than names with maybe one attribute to them, and nothing to create any kind of immersion. The beginning read like the raw material out of which great fairy tale retellings are grown. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, to be told how cold it is in the North, why Gerta loved Kay so much that she’d be willing to go out into the world and save him. And because I trust T. Kingfisher, I kept reading. And I was rewarded.

Although the beginning does drag a little if you don’t want to read a story told just like a fairy tale, it gets better and better the longer Gerta has been on her journey. The stops she makes and the people she meets start to feel less and less like little episodes and more like parts of a whole, bigger story. And by a certain point, we were right back in that well-beloved Kingfisher fairy tale territory that I had hoped for. It just took a little longer this time than in The Seventh Bride or Bryony and Roses.

Gerta does meet some characters from the original fairy tale, but they aren’t exactly the same as you’d expect. She also meets new characters, such as a raven and a reindeer (I know, bit surprise). The way these Nordic myths were incorporated into the reimagined fairy tale was probably my favorite part. I grew to love both raven and reindeer so much that I was sad when the story was over. The reindeer especially offers something new to discover even for crazy fairy tale lovers such as myself – for us, a straight forward retelling can sometimes feel a bit boring because we know everything that’s going to happen. So I always look for the parts that the author added, maybe took from other fairy tales, from myth, from history, or even from pure imagination, to keep me hooked. T. Kingfisher succeeded in that.

But there is another twist on the original tale here, one which most blurbs and synopsis will tell you beforehand, and which I don’t consider a spoiler either. On her travels, Gerta meets a Robber Girl, and in this version, the Robber Girl gets a personality and a mind of her own. And she may just fall in love with our protagonist a little bit… As Kay isn’t all that great to begin with (flying off with the Snow Queen, leaving his Gerta behind. I mean, how cold is that [pun a little intended]), I found it absolutely wonderful and refreshing to see Gerta figure out her own life without the need for Kay. Oh, she’s an amazing friend and definitely wants to save him, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be his girlfriend. Instead, she discovers what she values in people, she sees what it’s like when someone sticks by your side through the bad times as well as the good, and she learns to just love whom she loves.

If you’ve picked up this book and didn’t like the beginning, I urge you to push through it to get to the good bits. Because they are so good they make it all worthwile. I started reading this with a lot of disappointment, thinking Kingfisher had lost her deft hand at rewriting fairy tales with feminist twists, clever heroines, and believable romances. But a little patience did the trick and I was rewarded with another lovely, heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery, magic, and love. And reindeer! Never forget the reindeer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if trusted people on the interwebz hadn’t raved about it so much. As I don’t read much short fiction, I had never heard of Martine before, but I am all the more impressed with this debut novel of hers. It’s already a contender for my Hugo nominations for next year.

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE
by Arkady Martine

Published by: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 462 pages
Series: Teixcalaan #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident–or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion–all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret–one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life–or rescue it from annihilation.

This was a dense book and even at 462 pages, there isn’t anything in it that I’d call filler material. The story begins when Mahit Dzmare arrives at the capital of the Texcalaanli Empire where she is to take over from the previous – now deceased – ambassador Yskandr Aghavn. But she’s not alone, not really, because her people on Lsel Station have developed a technology that preserves memories and lets you implant them into people. So essentially, Mahit is carrying a copy of Yskandr (outdated by 15 years, but still) in her mind when she arrives for her new job.

She is given a cultural liaison to help her navigate this place that is vastly different from her home. I immediately adored this liaison, Three Seagrass. Although the Teixcalaanli people aren’t known for emotional outbursts, Three Seagrass  was a wonderfully bubbly, eternally optimistic kind of character who was impossible to dislike. She takes her job seriously and truly wants to help Mahit navigate the imperial court. Oh yes, and there’s also the small matter that Yskandr seems to have been murdered…

What starts as a sort of murder mystery in space soon grows into something much bigger. Not only is Teixcalaan a fantastically interesting culture to discover and learn about, but Mahit’s own culture is just as intriguing. Over the course of the novel, we get to see more of both worlds, and I was there for all of it. I honestly wouldn’t even have needed a plot because finding out how Lsel’s imago machines work would have been enough to keep me interested. Add to that a brilliant cast of characters, court intrigue, and that murder mystery, and you’ve got a great novel right there.

As in any good story, things don’t go smoothly for our protagonist. Not only are there several attempts on her life, but her Yskandr imago isn’t working as it should, leaving her without the help she so depended on. Then there are players in this game of imperial thrones who all have their own plans, none of which Mahit understands at first. She doesn’t know whom to trust and she desperately wants a friend to confide in. And then there’s the fact that she is considered a Barbarian, not part of the Teixcalaanli Empire, and essentially an outsider. For someone who just wants to belong somewhere, that is an added psychological weight to what is already a strained situation.

I won’t tell you anything about the plot, only that it is well put together, with things falling into place and making sense by the end. Mahit Dzmare, Three Seagrass, and Twelve Azaelia were excellent characters with great interactions, but even the side characters who appear less frequently felt like real, fleshed-out people. So when somebody turns out to be a traitor, or when a character dies, it is meaningful and never just a plot device. Even the Emperor didn’t feel like your regular head of state who only thinks of annexing more and more places in the universe. He has layers just like everyone else. To get characters this well done in a debut novel is really impressive, so I’m all the more curious to see where Martine takes the story in the sequel.

This book also deals with the idea of Empire itself, of a power so great that it eats up everything else, a culture that absorbs (and possibly destroys) other cultures. Mahit may be from Lsel Station and she may love her home and want to preserve it the way it is, but she is by no means immune to the appeal of belonging to something as great as Teixcalaan. I loved how this story didn’t simplify things into Bad Empire vs. Small Independent Culture – Mahit’s culture isn’t automatically “the good guy” just as Teixcalaan isn’t purely bad. The book doesn’t take sides, it simply shows us this world the way it is and lets us draw our own subjective conclusions.

Although it took me a long time to finish this book, there wasn’t a single page that bored me or took me out of the reading flow. But it is a book that demands to be read slowly, simply because it packs so much information – about the characters, the plot, the world, the technology – onto every page. In addition to amazing characters, Arkady Martine also managed that without info-dumping. The world simply becomes clearer and clearer the more you read, and by the end, I felt that I had a true sense of what it’s like to live there. That said, there is way more to discover in  Teixcalaan and I hope we get the next book very soon. And if Arkady Martine decides to write something completely different, I’ll be picking that up too. Because boy, am I impressed!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

The Dream Chooses the Dreamer: Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer

Sometimes, everything about a book is just right. While many books have lovely covers, only few manage to offer a story that equals it. This is a book where the feelings you get when you look at the cover (I have the UK edition which is my absolute favorite) actually give you a hint of what you’ll find inside. Something magical and strange, where the color blue is important, where moths are more than just annoying creatures that come out at night… I loved everything about this book!

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Hodder & Stougthon, 2017
Hardcover: 536 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

There are some books that take a while to draw you in, to make you feel part of their world, to turn characters from strangers into friends. Not this book! From the very first chapter, I was captivated, I wanted to learn everything about the world into which Laszlo Strange had been born. When I read that Laszlo’s nose had been broken by a book of fairy tales, I was already utterly in love with him – and so will many other book lovers.

Strange the Dreamer is about many things, but at its core, it is about a city. A city Laszlo first encountered in stories he heard as a child, a city filled with magical beasts, and brave warriors, and colorful markets. When one day, Laszlo – and everybody else – loses that city’s name from his mind and memory, he knows magic is real and wants to solve the mystery of what is now called Weep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I say that the city is by no means a fairytale and it has much bigger problems than a missing name… And Laszlo of course wants to solve them.

It is a rare book that gets me so emotional in such a short span of time. At the very beginning, when we still get to know Laszlo Strange and his life as an apprentice librarian, we watch him play Tizerkane – one of the legendary warriors from the city of Weep. I got so swept up in his dreams that I wanted the legends to be real as much as Laszlo did. When, shortly after that, something happens to Laszlo that is brutally unfair, I felt real anger on his behalf. I was only a few chapters into the book and already I felt like Laszlo was my friend! That is no small feat and I can only applaud Laini Taylor for it. She is equally deft with her other characters. Whether we’re meant to love or hate them, see them for the multi-layered people that they are, be uncertain of whether we like them – she does it all beautifully and has created a cast of amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time.

As the title would suggest, this book is like falling into a dream and the writing style goes perfectly with that theme. Lush descriptions, beautiful quotable passages, natural-sounding dialogue – I couldn’t find a fault with it even if I tried to nitpick. In fact, this book was so gorgeous (inside and out) that I dragged it  out the further I got to the end. I know there’s a second book – it has moved onto my shelf in the meantime – but the longer I can spend with Laszlo and the others, the better.

Speaking of the others, there are quite a few and all of them are interesting, even though I wouldn’t want to know all of them in real life. Thyon Nero, an alechemist prodigy, may not be in direct competition with Laszlo (as a librarian, he doesn’t exactly have a high social status), but he is something like Laszlo’s childhood rival, nonetheless. But although he seems to be the first “villain”, we soon learn that there is more to Nero than meets the eye. Sure, he may be a jerk most of the time, but there are reasons for that and it’s not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, we have characters like Sarai, who became an immediate favorite. I won’t say much about her because although we meet her early in the book, there are a few twists and surprises that I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that she leads a pretty difficult life, filled with magic and monsters and moths. Yes, you read that right – moths. The cover isn’t just pretty (soooo pretty), it is actually meaningful. Sarai’s inner conflict would have been enough to fill an entire book, but pairing her story with Laszlo’s created something new and wonderful.
Then there’s Eril-Fane, lauded as a hero who has saved his city, and sure… he kind of did that. But again, there is way more to his story than you may think at first.

It’s quite difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. And it’s not even that there are that many plot twists, but the way Laini Taylor slowly unveils the secrets of her story is so utterly perfect that I don’t want to ruin it for you guys. She puts characters we love into impossible situations, she gives us moments of pure bliss, and moments of absolute desperation. And, at the end, she  puts a knife in our hearts and twists it around – because authors are evil, I guess. But, you know, the good kind of evil.

This was a story that will stay with me for a long time. Reading it was a wonderful experience, trying to figure out how to solve the various problems, speculating where the story might go, it was just pure fun. I haven’t been this emotionally engaged in a book for a while and although I really want to know how the story ends, I am also a little hesitant. Because once I’ve finished the second book, it will truly be over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!

Fairy Politics and Forbidden Romance: Holly Black – The Wicked King

Unlike most other people, I did not love The Cruel Prince unconditionally. It was a fun read that offered a refreshingly complex story for a YA book. But apart from the twist at the end, it wasn’t the kind of book that made me go: I need the second one NOW! “Now” has arrived, however, and after reading this sequel, I am definitely among the people who are screaming for the third book. What an exciting ride this was! Spoilers for The Cruel Prince below!!

THE WICKED KING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019
Hardcover: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 20 minutes
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance – readiness.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude had maneuvered herself into a precarious position. Yes, she wields incredible power, but that power is bound to run out. Over five months have passed when we rejoin Jude and Cardan at the Faerie Court and their relationship is… strained. Add to that the fact that Orla, the Queen of the Undersea, made a pact with the previous High King and now kind of considers that pact void – because reasons.

The shift in power dynamics between Jude and Cardan makes for excellent drama. Even if there hadn’t been a plot that includes the threat of war with the Undersea, Jude’s relationship with her sister, and her hiding that she is literally pulling the High King’s strings, this would have been enough to keep me entertained. As unhealthy and problematic as it might be, the tension between Jude and Cardan was also so damn sexy. I know I’m bad for liking them, but I just can’t help it. 🙂

I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot because, much like in the first book, there are plenty of things to discover. Jude is warned that someone close to her is a traitor, she meets new characters that reveal interesting things about the people she knows, she learns more of Cardan’s past… And all the while, she is worried about Oak, her sister is preparing to get married, and the Shadow Court is still doing its thing but we get way more insight into everything. Generally, it felt like Black used this second volume to expand her world, to give us a better idea how everything works and how the various political factions influence each other.

Jude is trying to juggle all the players on her Faerie chess board and, naturally, gets herself into the occasional super dangerous situation. This is not an action-packed book but when things get tricky for our protagonist, it’s impossible to put down. There was one chapter in particular that had me at the edge of my seat, filled with worry for Jude, and for the fate of Faerie in general. And apart from that, every scene between Jude and Cardan was just so loaded with tension, unspoken feelings, held-back desires, and struggles for power that I just couldn’t stop reading. Cardan also grew as a character which made it much easier for me to understand how Jude feels about him. In the first book – no matter how the ending tries to justify it – he was just an asshole. A cruel, heartless bastard who enjoys the pain of others. But here, we discover that there’s more to him than we first thought. He may still be a jerk most of the time, but he also has moments that show that there is definitely good in him.

For the middle book of a trilogy, this was truly a stunning novel. Most middle books don’t really do much to further the plot but rather set up the grand finale. That is the case here, too, but the book would also work really well as a standalone. It has its own story arc that would work well by itself, but of course, it also furthers the greater conflict of the succession to the Court, of Jude coming into her own and finding who she wants to be.

Without spoilers, let me tell you that the ending was again mind-blowing! Holly Black makes you feel that you kind of know what’s going to happen, then turns everything on its head. And then she puts an unexpected knife into her readers’ hearts and twists it around, because she can. I have come to believe that she is an evil genius who enjoys toying with her readers – and I am absolutely loving it! Now I feel that I am truly a part of all the other fans who are eagerly awaiting the publication of The Queen of Nothing (a title that makes so much sense now).

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Perfect Fairy Tale: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North

As someone who reads a lot of fairy tale retellings, it’s become hard for books to blow my mind and truly enchant me. Not only do I know the fairy tale by heart but I’ve also read many versions, updates, twists, and retellings of it – so to discover a book that manages to be original while honoring its fairy tale basis is something special. Joanna Ruth Meyer has not only done that, but she’s added some amazing twists that actually left me gasping.

ECHO NORTH
by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Published by: Page Street Publishing, 2019
Hardcover: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I was called Echo for my mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me.

Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.
In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

When Echo was born, her mother died, leaving her only with her beloved father and brother and a thirst for knowledge. She grows up loved and happy, but at the age of seven, an encounter with a white wolf leaves one side of her face hideously scarred. From that day on, she becomes an outcast in her villages, can’t make any friends, and has people stare at her and avoid her. Things don’t get better when Echo’s father decides to get married again – to a greedy, superficial woman who demands more riches than the family can  afford. And then Echo’s father doesn’t return from a trip to the city, so she goes looking for him and finds… a while wolf.

From there, things follow the story of the fairy tale not exactly, but at least recognisably. Echo promises to live with the wolf for one year in order to save her father’s life. They sleep in the same room, and the one thing she is forbidden to do is light a candle in the night and look upon the sleeping wolf. But Joanna Ruth Meyer has added so many layers, so many ideas to this time spent with the wolf. Instead of a castle, they live in a magical house under a hill, with ever-changing rooms filled with both wonders and terrors. Discovering these rooms was so much fun, but best of all was the Library of Mirrors (I want one and I don’t care if it’s impossible)!

The idea of stepping into stories and living them, rather than just reading them on a page, will appeal to any book nerd. So you can imagine my joy when Echo discovered just such a marvel in the enchanted house. But she’s also the kind of character who doesn’t just sit around all day, living fictional people’s stories (not that that’s a bad thing… ahem) – she knows something is up, she knows the wolf is under some kind of curse, and she is determined to figure everything out and save him. Then there are the people she meets in books – a girl who becomes her friend, and a boy named Hal who may become even more than that. But he is also surrounded by mystery, so Echo has a lot of secrets to solve. Meanwhile, the house is starting to unravel, becomes more and more dangerous, and Echo and the wolf have their hands full just staying alive.

What made this book so special for me were a few small-ish things that added up to an amazing experience. First of all, Echo’s being scarred and always feeling like and outsider made her a great protagonist to follow. Like most young girls, she dreams of being beautiful, of being accepted, yet she knows that her scars will always scare people away. She is a resourceful, smart protagonist who desperately wants to help people even though people in general haven’t been very kind to her. If you know the fairy tale, you also know that the heroine does something incredibly stupid – I loved how Meyer solved that problem and made Echo’s decision to do that stupid thing feel not stupid at all. In this version of the tale, it made perfect sense and it didn’t make me think less of Echo.

The other thing that makes this retelling stand out is the underlying mythology Meyer came up with. While in the original, the wolf is a bear and the evil Queen is a Troll Queen, here everything is just different enough to keep people like me intrigued and guessing. If this is not the dumb Troll Queen from the fairy tale, what powers might she wield? How smart might she be and how much more difficult could she make it for Echo to save her wolf? The winds also make appearances, although not as literally as in the fairy tale. I was also delighted at the way they were incorporated into the story, especially the North Wind, who even gets a back story of his own.

As for the romance, it may not have given me butterflies, but it was the steadily building kind of romance that happens between the lines. By the end, I was invested in the relationship, although I don’t quite know when that happened. Speaking of the end – holy shit, there is a twist I did not see coming and that alone makes the book worthwile! The author really doesn’t go easy on her protagonist and just when you think she’s managed to save her wolf, when things start looking good, a knife is twisted in your heart.

If you couldn’t tell, I adored this book. The characters, the plot, especially the world building were all fantastically done. If I had to pick anything I didn’t like 100% it was the language. There were a few phrases that the author kept repeating, such as descriptions of the house’s features or people’s looks. But compared to everything else, that’s a tiny nitpick which didn’t diminish my reading pleasure at all. I am so excited to see what Meyer comes up with next and if it will be just as wonderful as Echo North.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Die Hard in Space: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Gemina

It’s been a while since I read Illuminae and from what I read on the internet, that’s a good thing. It means, I came to this second book in the trilogy with fresh(ish) eyes. Most reviews mention that if Gemina has a fault, it’s that it’s too similar to the first book. But if you let enough time pass between the books, that’s not a problem. For me, this was even better than Illuminae and I flew through the 663 pages in only two days. So yay, go me! Spoilers for Illuminae below!

GEMINA
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by: Knopf Books, 2016
Hardcover: 663 pages
Series: The Illuminae Files #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: …over seven hundred thousand employees across dozens of colonized worlds. Is it that difficult to believe?

Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.
The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.
Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.
When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.
But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Hanna Donnelly is the Heimdall station captain’s daughter and while she may seem like daddy’s little princess at first glance, there’s more to her than meets the eye. Nik Malikov is a member of the House of Knives, a crime syndicate that deals drugs, is as corrupt as you’d expect, and has a history of murder. But he’s also just a teenage boy who is more than the tattoos he wears. He also has a serious crush on Hanna.

If you’ve read the first book, you know that the ship Hypatia is currently on its way to Heimdall station to jump through the station’s wormhole. You will also know that the BeiTech Corporation is trying to do its very best to keep that from happening. So, as any corrupt corporation trying to hide its dirty tracks would, they send a team of criminals to take over the station and let a fleet of drone ships through to the Hypatia to eliminate it. Except that team didn’t expect to meet resistance by a couple of teenagers with serious skills…

I loved everything about this book! The way it is written is the same as in Illuminae – we get chat  protocols, descriptions of surveillance footage, journal entries (featuring really lovely artwork!), transcripts of radio communications and so on. It may feel like a gimmick and maybe it is, but that doesn’t mean it was any less fun to read. The chapters were also very short and I believe the comination of interesting media and short chapters is what made me read this book so quickly. Oh, and also that the plot happened to keep me at the edge of my seat for hours on end.

It was so easy to like the characters, right from the start. Hanna is a kick-ass girl who may be a bit spoiled (I mean who spends that amount of money on an outfit?!) but she’s smart and resourceful, she’s incredibly brave, and she wants to do what is right, even if it means she may not make it out of this alive. Nik may come across as cocky, but it’s also clear from the beginning, that he is hiding things, that there are mysteries in his past, that he may not exactly be happy with his life as a crime lord’s son. The guy may need some serious grammar lessons, but his heart is in the right place. I also really liked his cousin, Ella, whose hacking skills save the protagonists’ asses on more than one occasion.

The plot reminded me very much of Die Hard (thus the title of this post). While most of the population of Heimdall is held as hostages or locked away somewhere, Hanna and Nik are free to run around and make the terrorists’ lives as hard as possible. As soon as shit hits the fan, there is barely a moment of rest for our heroes. This was so much fun to read, almost like watching a blockbuster movie unfold in your mind. There are action-packed scenes, lovely character moments, and a beautiful development of relationships. I was all the more impressed with that last point because in the media the authors chose to use, there is no description of what the characters were feeling at any given time. It all happens through what they say or do and occasionally through the description of the video footage where the (unknown) transcriber speculates about their emotions.

To say this was a riveting thrill-ride is an understatement. I couldn’t have put this book down if I wanted to! So much happens and if it had simply been two teenagers defending their space station, that would have been enough for me. But Kristoff and Kaufman don’t mess around. There is quite the twist at the end that left me sitting there, mouth agape, thinking: “Shiiiiit, how are they going to fix this mess?” I may even have shed a tear or two because, despite all the action, there is always this undertone of despair. Our characters have lost people they love, their lives as they knew them are definitely over, no matter how this ends, and they don’t even get a moment to simply sit down and grieve.

While I liked the ending, it was clearly only the build up to the last book in the trilogy. I want to wait a while before I read that one because that worked really well for me this time, but I honestly don’t know that I can. I need to know what happens next, I want to feel that thrill of a truly exciting story again, and even though the romance is always visible from miles ahead, I can’t wait to see what butterfly-inducing couple this fabulous author duo comes up with next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!