Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

Half-Year Review – My Favorite Books of 2017 (so far)

This post is a little late in arriving, and my blog has been very quiet these last few weeks. I’m dealing with some big Life Stuff at the moment which saps all energy right out of me. I can’t concentrate, which means I can’t read, which means I can’t write either. I don’t really know how to deal with my situation at the moment but maybe just sitting down and telling you about all the wonderful books I have read this year will help.

2017 has been a good reading year. My favorite part – and one that led me to a lot of new books I would have otherwise overlooked – has been the Read Diverse 2017 challenge. I’ve mentioned it every time I reviewed a book I read for the challenge and I’ll continute mentioning it because I am having so much fun participating. Any year with a new Cat Valente book is by default a good year, and so far we’ve gotten one slim novel with another middle grade one coming up in September. I also stuck my toe in the waters of Urban Fantasy again and Mishell Baker proved to me that, yeah, there’s stuff in that sub-genre that even I like. Plus, I disocvered a new author that immediately went to my favorites list (Katherine Arden) and a book that totally stole my heart.

So here they are, my favorite books of the year so far (not all published this year):

Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

This has been my absolute favorite book of the year so far and I can’t think of any part of it I didn’t adore. It has great characters, beautiful language, a story steeped in Russian myth and fairy tales, and even fantastic villains. And the cover art is gorgeous. I pre-ordered the sequel before I even finished this book and I can’t wait to read more about Vasya and her family.

Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

I probably liked this one so much because I had had written off Laini Taylor as “just not for me”. Then she comes along with these three stories that are each so perfect and beautifully written that I couldn’t help but fall in love. The mix of fairy tale flavor with original monsters and mythology was just what I needed. In this case, I think the cover is pretty terrible and misleading, so if you’re shying away from this book because of the cover, maybe look past that and give it a chance.

Mishell Baker – Borderline and Phantom Pains

I now read Urban Fantasy! I am so proud. Mishell Baker’s heroine Millie is a double amputee suicide survivor with Borderline Personality Disorder. Oh, and she also stumbles into a job that involves policing traffic between our world and Fairyland. Although it may sound depressing (suicide survivor who lost her legs… that’s not exactly most people’s dream), these books are among the most hopeful, uplifing stories I have ever read. They are fast-paced, the characters are all complex, and the internal magic is quite intriguing.

Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance

You can say what you want about Sanderson but he does the epic part in Epic Fantasy really well. This is the second book in the Stormlight Archive series which I enjoyed again as a Graphic Audio book. Although it means waiting about six to twelve months longer for the next instalment, I will continue following Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Adolin in audiobook format. It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving stuff away, but there’s just so much to discover on every layer of this book. The world building is insane, all the characters grow, and there are huge battles.

Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Come on, how could I not love an AI security unit that freed itself from its restraints, not to go on a killing rampage (despite calling itself Murderbot) but to watch endless hours of soap operas? This was one of the most refreshing, heartwarming things I read all year, and it’s set in a future that has a ton of possibilities for sequels. Murderbot stole my heart and became much more than a machine. It’s a full character with likes and dislikes, loyalty, and even fondness towards us silly humans.

Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest and The Refrigerator Monologues

It took me long enough to read Palimpsest but it was exactly the kind of experience I hoped it would be. Almost like falling into a dream filled with imagery and deep meaning, there isn’t much plot, but damn was this a beautiful book.
The Refrigerator Monologues may have been short and it may not give us the happy endings we would have liked for our various comic book heroines, villainesses, and superheroes’ girlfriends. But it does give them a voice and show that they are much more than just sidekicks or means to an end. I think that is important and, written with Valente’s incredible skill, also a lot of fun to read. You know, the kind of fun that is also heart-breaking.

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – Saga Volume Seven

Saga continues to go strong. There have been a couple of issues in this series that I didn’t unabashedly love but the overall experience is still overwhelmingly positive. This latest collection was way up there again and it delivers exactly what the series has come to be known for. Great art, amazing characters, a thrilling story that doesn’t shy away from… well, anything really. This is probably my favorite comic series, along with Fables, of all time.

Challenge stats

Considering my recent reading slump, I’m doing pretty well on my challenges.

I’ve technically already reached my goal for my Fairy Tale Retellings challenge. The plan was to read five to eight books and I’ve read six, plus I’m about to finish one more.
Against all expectations, I have also reached my Read Around the World goal, with 5 books read, all set in different places in the world.
I am a little behind on my New Books of 2017 challenge. Although I didn’t set a specific goal, I am working toward 20 books, and so far I’ve read only seven.
There’s even more catching up to do on my Speculative Fiction Authors of Color challenge. I have only read four books so far, but in my defense, I started another one which turned out to be horrible. I may just write a DNF review about that because I can’t stomach the last 40% of that book… But, number one goal for the rest of the year – prioritize Authors of Color!

The Read Diverse 2017 challenge is the one I most enjoy (I may have said this a few hundred times before…) and my goal here is to post 30 reviews of diverse reads, simply because that’s the number you need to reach to receive the final blog button. 🙂
Obviously, surpassing this goal would be great and I’ll do my very best, but if I fill this blog with 30 reviews of diverse authors and stories in one year, I’ll consider this a huge success, even without the button.

Overall, Goodreads tells me I am now 7 books behind my reading goal for the year. I already set that goal pretty low at 84 books and being that far behind is a little crushing, to be honest.

But, I am in the middle of about 8 books right now, so if I find the energy to finally finish them, I should be right back on track. Wish me luck!

Save

Catherynne M. Valente – The Refrigerator Monologues

It is a good year when a new Valente book comes out. This year, we are extra lucky because in September, we’ll get another new Valente novel which is about the Bronte children and the fantasy world they made up together – so exactly the kind of book you’d want from Cat. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Valente leaves her usual turf of fantasy, myth, and fairy tale and delivers something new, fresh, angry, and beautiful. Although it may lack the emotional punch of her fantasy tales, it will leave you uncomfortable and thoughtful in the best of ways.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Annie Wu

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Hardcover: 160 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

In Deadtown, the underworld, whatever comes after death, six women meet to talk about their lives, their involvement with famous superheroes, and what led them to Deadtown (read: killed them horribly) anyway. With superhero movies still going strong, the trope of the refrigerated woman has become quite well known – it’s when a superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or even a villainess is brutally murdered for the simple reason that our hero needs a kick in the ass to make his own story move forward. Whether it’s to avenge a beloved (and now very dead) girlfriend or whether the girl is just a pawn in the boys’ superpower games, it’s never about her and she doesn’t get a voice. Cat Valente gives these women that voice.

Framed by the women meeting in Deadtown – which, although the book doesn’t spend much time on world building, a really cool place to read about – each gets to tell her own story. And – surprise! – it turns out they all had a story before whichever superhero entered their world. While all heroes and heroines, villains and the six women themselves have new and original names, anyone who has read a comic book or seen a few Marvel or DC movies will recognise most of them immediately. There’s your Gwen Stacy and your Harley Quinn, Mera (whose name I had to look up because all I knew about her was that she was Aquaman’s wife, which goes to show just how important this book is.) and Phoenix, as well as the original refrigerated woman from Green Lantern.

Each gets to tell her story in turn and here’s where my love for this book begins. Because it may be fun figuring out which superhero you’re reading about, but it is even more fun how every woman tells her story in her own voice. Pretty Polly (the Harley Quinn of this universe) talks just like you’d imagine she would. Kind of sweet-ish and girly, with a fair bit of madness added to the mix. Blue Bayou sounds angry, Paige Embry is just totally endearing, and Julia Ash (whose villain’s is aptly named Retcon) felt kind of resigned. The voices always fit and the stories these women have to tell are engaging and intriguing for more than one reason. First of all, they’re just interesting stories. Secondly, they would have fit so beautifully into their respective universes – why isn’t there space in a Spider Man movie to show Gwen Stacy as more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She had a life before him and she had a life with him, just like all the others. Their demise was incredibly heartbreaking, although obviously we know from the start that they die and if you remember the original comic books how they die. To me, that’s just another sign of how amazing a writer Valente is. If you know what happens and how it happens, and all she does is give you a little background info, give the character who is about to die a little agency and personality, and it hits you deep in the guts anyway, then yeah… that’s a great writer!

Other than the stories themselves, I loved what little we get to see of Deadtown. Like everything that is there has to be completely dead in the world of the living. So Deadtown citizens eat extinct animals and only get to read books that are gone from our world. And I loved the little aside how Deadtown is never gonna get Harry Potter. Because despite the dark subject matter and the inevitable horrible deaths of the protagonists, there is also a lot of humor in this book. At 160 pages, it runs very short and I would have loved to get more of the same (then again, when I talk about a Valente book, when do I ever not say that?), but I urge you to buy yourself a hardback copy anyway because the stories are accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Annie Wu. Each character gets an illustration of her own and the style is just perfect. Like an old comic book but with amazing character design. The book itself is also a lovely object that will sit proudly on any shelf. I know I’m a broken record but CAT VALENTE IS THE BEST AND I LOVED THIS BOOK WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING!

My rating: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

 

Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance

There’s a reason Sanderson’s books are sold as Epic Fantasy because when he wants to go epic, he goes EPIC. This is the second book in the Stormlight Archive so if you haven’t read the first, steer far away from anything below this introduction. There will, by necessity, be spoilers galore for the first book and even then it’s going to be hard talking about this series spoiler-free.

WORDS OF RADIANCE
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2014
Hardcover: 1087 pages
Graphic Audio: ~ 37 hours
Series: The Stormlight Archive #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Jasnah Kholin pretended to enjoy the party, giving no indication that she intended to have one of the guests killed.

Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status “darkeyes.” Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.
The Assassin, Szeth, is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.
Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.

First of all: I have no idea how to review this book. There is so much going on, the universe expands, the characters grow into their powers, new storylines are introduced, and it’s all just SO MUCH. Which, I guess, is why this beast of a book is over 1000 pages long. But I’ll do my best in what will probably be an extremely vague review. Most importatly, I loved reading it and these 1000 pages felt like a mere 200.

If The Way of Kings was Kaladin’s book, this is clearly Shallan’s. The story continues seamlessly from where the first book left off, continues and (finally!) intertwines Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar’s tales, and answers some burning questions, while throwing up a whole bunch of new ones. Oh, and did I mention the epic battles, powerful magic, lovely bickering, and world-building? Well, you’ll get all of that too for the price of one book.

Having fallen in love with Graphic Audio a few years ago, I almost don’t want to consume Sanderson through any other medium anymore. I did buy a hardback of Words of Radiance (and  my copy of Oathbringer is pre-ordered of course), but the whopping 37 hours of Graphic Audio, what with all the voices I’ve gotten used to, the theme music and the sound spren make, I absolutely prefer having read this gigantic book to me. I can only continue to recommend these audiobooks!

But on to the actual story. It opens with a big smack in the face with a Jasnah flashback that (literally) opens whole new worlds for us readers to think about and consider. In the present, Shallan is trying to make it to the Shattered Plains, Kaladin is coming to terms with his powers and his new position under Dalinar, and Dalinar is still seeking to save the world somehow. From whatever it is that threatens it. From these starting points, so many things happen, I couldn’t possible sum them up but, to me, the magic system and the world building became much more clear in this book than in The Way of Kings. What at first appeared to be random or existed by evolution turns out to have more complex backgrounds and it was so much fun discovering how new information made events from the first book appear in a different light. We learn a lot about spren, about what is probably the Big Bad for our heroes to fight, about history and culture in Roshar… oh man, there is seriously so much to discover. I especially liked the interludes which usually have nothing to do with the main story but are put in as an added world-building bonus, if you like.

Without giving too much away, there are a few things I want to talk about. For me, even in the first book, when they hadn’t met yet, it was clear that Shallan and Kaladin would make a kick-ass couple. Having them finally meet and turn out to be MY FAVORITE  THING IN THE WORLD OF FICTION – a bickering couple that slowly builds respect for each other – was the best part of this book for me. Also, the fact that they both have powers that they are hiding from others makes for some hilarious scenes. In case it’s not obvious, I’m shipping these two hard! But it’s not only Shallan and Kaladin who grow as people and who show different facets of their characters. Adolin, whom I liked in the first book, but thought of as slightly childish, feels like a more rounded character, more grown-up, more focused on what’s important, and I have grown even fonder of Renarin, who is kind of the underdog of the Kholin family but who shows that he is just as important and strong (in his own way) as his brother.

Politically speaking, a lot of stuff happens in this book. Action-wise, a lot of stuff happens in this book. I couldn’t possibly go into detail about all of it, but let me say that Sanderson knows how to write battles! Whether it’s two Shardbearers going at each other, or entire armies clashing on the Shattered Plains, do not expect to remember to eat or go to the bathroom while you’re reading this book. Much like in the Mistborn series, the magic also feels very naturally a part of the fighting. When Sanderson writes about lashings or someone sucking in Stormlight, there is no need for long explanations on what that means, it’s just like someone saying “He picked up his sword”. The magic is an organic part of this fictional world and it just works. I still have a billion questions, especially considering the Cosmere, but man, that was an awesome book!

As I said, this was Shallan’s book, and just like we got Kaladin flashbacks in The Way of Kings, we get Shallan flashbacks in this one, fleshing out her past, her reasons for hunting down Jasnah Kholin, and more information about Shallan’s family. Some of these were not surprising, but there were a few revelations that I found quite chilling. And knowing what Shallan has gone through makes her character all the more impressive. The way Kaladin deals with grief (and he’s had his share of that!) is very different from how Shallan deals with hers, but I liked both of them better for it.

Now, after a bit of a book hangover, I am just super excited to see who the next book will focus on (I think it’s Dalinar) and how the new – huge – discoveries of this one will shape the world of Roshar. I could honestly just drown myself in this world and never come up for air. If you have a bit of time on your hands and want to truly immerse yourself in an epic fantasy world, trust the legions of Sanderson fans and give this series a try. The page count may seem daunting at first, but I’ll bet you’ll wish for even more pages as soon as you start reading. I certainly am.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – EPIC!

Interesting links

Save

Save

Eternally hopeful: Mishell Baker – Phantom Pains

It’s no secret that I usually steer away from Urban Fantasy. But that only means the type of Urban Fantasy with scantily clad women on the cover, usually looking over their shoulder, carrying some kind of weapon, and with the title written over their wrapped-in-leather butt. But Mishell Baker makes Urban Fantasy so much fun! Even with the most broken (literally) heroine you can imagine, The Arcadia Project series takes you on wild adventures and leaves you just hopeful of the future, whatever it may bring.

PHANTOM PAINS
by Mishell Baker

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Here’s the thing about PTSD: it doesn’t understand the rules.

Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.

Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Millie Roper has a job, regular therapy sessions, and her life mostly under control. After her adventures with the Arcadia Project, a bit of routine seems like just the thing to make her forget what she’s seen, and who she’s lost. But – as stories go – she is dragged back into Arcadia business soon enough where she has to fix a whole new mess. And of course she wouldn’t be Millie if she didn’t add an extra layer of messiness to an already difficult situation. But that’s exactly what makes these books so much fun.

Phantom Pains picks up only a few months after the end of Borderline and while Millie is still struggling with her old demons and disablities (prosthetic legs, BPD, plus the newly-added PTSD), she is still the Millie I fell in love with. The hopeful one who knows herself all too well and doubts her every emotion, but believes in herself when it counts. She combines intelligence, humor, and pragmatism in the most sympathetic way and I hope I’ll get to read many more books featuring her. If more Urban Fantasy progatonists were like Millie, I’d actually read the damn things.

But Millie’s life has changed in another major way since we last saw her. She knows and is in contact with her Echo, Claybriar, and as much as I love their relationship, it is super complicated! If, after her suicide attempt, Millie hadn’t been put together with metal screws and plates, she wouldn’t be Ironbones – basically poison to the fey but also WHAT A COOL NAME. Touching Claybriar, which she desperately wants to do, hurts him and also makes his facade disappear, showing him for the faun he really is. To say that their relationship is interesting is a huge understatement. Add to that the fact that they both sleep with other people (non-romantically), plus Millie’s complex relationship with Caryl, and you’ve got the makings of a thrilling story, even without the added crazy magic.

This book advances a lot more than just Millie as a character, though. The entire world of the Arcadia Project opens up, introducing us to the head of the Project herself, as well as some very high up people from Arcadia. I had a blast getting to know these new characters and learning more about the world Baker has created. It’s always appreciated when it’s not just vampires and werewolves but anything else. And if that anything is internally consistent and has some sort of magic-logic to it, all the better.  There are also some huge revelations to do with this particular magic that turn the entire world upside down but which I can’t go into detail because spoilers. But let me tell you, I had a really stupid look on my face when I read that chapter, and I felt about as confused and lost as Millie did.

One thing about side characters: I absolutely loved loved loved Brand! If this book went my way, there would have been an additional 50 chapters, all involving Brand, preferably in combination with Tjuan. He added a weird but delightful sense of humor to the horrible things that were going on. You know, fate of the world at stake and all that, but at least I can laugh about and with Brand. Tjuan was already there in the first book but I really liked how we finally learn a bit more about him and how his character gets more depth. The same goes for Claybriar and Caryl. I don’t want to spoil anything here but even characters that don’t show up a lot feel like real people.

The diversity in this series is amazing! There’s Millie to start with, but everyone working for the Arcadia Project usually has some sort of disability or disorder. In addition, there is an Indian woman and a trans man, and (because I know someone is going to say it) it’s not ticking off diversity points from a list. It feels organic and normal and wonderful simply because the characters are all different, and all in different ways. Whether it’s a schizophrenic POC, or an Indian straight woman, or a bisexual woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, these feel like real people to me and I want to get to know every single one of them better. Even the dicks.

The plot was – just as I expected – always entertaining, never shying away from unexpected twists and turns, maybe even more action-packed than in the previous book without sacrificing character development. Pretty amazing, right? The ending was both great and terrifying, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next book, and (if you couldn’t tell already) I’ve come to really care about these characters. However, I am now in for the long haul, and hope that Mishell Baker gets the chance to write at least 10 more Arcadia books. Buy this book, people! You know you want to.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

Related links:

Save

Save

Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles

Like a lot of people, I’ve never read the Iliad. I know the basic story from school and those Greek Myths CDs I had as a kid, but I’ve always lacked the gumption to actually pick up a copy and read the whole damn thing. But you don’t really need to know anything about the Iliad to enjoy The Song of Achilles – in fact, this made me want to go straight back to those Greek stories and I may just pick up Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall soon, which retells the Odyssey.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus and follows him from childhood to the battle of Troy. Patroclus is a prince who is exiled after an accident that kills another boy, so he loses his name and princedom, and he also has trouble coming to terms with the other boy’s death. He also meets Achilles, famed to become aristos achaion, the Best of the Greeks, a hero and the son of a goddess. A connection starts blooming between these unlikely friends that soon turns into more.

This is definitely one of those slow burning books, where for long stretches at a time, nothing much seems to happen, especially if you expect epic battles. But the way it focuses on characters and the relationship between Achilles and Patroculs kept me entertained for the full 400 pages without a problem. Madeline Miller writes beautifully, letting her characters’ actions speak for them. I loved it so very much when Patroclus looked at Achilles and described him in his mind – without getting cheesy or overly descriptive of his body parts, he paints the picture of a god and makes it all the easier to understand why he loves him.

I can smell him. The oils that he uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandawood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked thorugh, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to.

Apart from the wonderfully done romance, I was also intrigued by the setting and society in this book. Having next to no experience with stories of Ancient Greece that aren’t specifically about the gods, I was quite surprised at certain aspects. There are a ton of princes, bringing shame to your family is the worst, gods can be appeased with sacrifice… While I expected all of this to some degree, the way Miller incorporated these things into the story felt organic and natural, like it’s just part of these guys’ lives.

Another highlight was definitely Odysseus, the sly man. He may only show up a couple of times before he joins in the war on Troy, but I swear he steals every scene he is in. Despite being a side character in this particular story, he has the air of a protagonist and you can tell – even if you don’t know about the Odyssey – that this guy is going to go down in history as a legend. Whenever he showed up, I started smiling and waiting to see what he would come up with next.
Similarly interesting was Achilles’ relationship to his mother, Thetis, and her as a character in general. She never makes a secret of her dislike for Patroclus, and Achilles stands between them, silently but certain of his choices. See, this is what I meant when I said it’s a slow-moving book. The interesting bits aren’t so much in the action scenes (although there are some of those at the end in the battle of Troy) but in the little moments between characters, in what they don’t say, but what their body language conveys. Making body language come to life in a novel is no small feat but I saw every scene so vividly before me that I caught myself speculating on why somebody’s shoulders slumped at a particular moment, or why Achilles stands so tall and proud.

I did feel that the last part of the book dragged a bit with the Trojan war going on what felt like forever. Since Patroclus is not much of a fighter, he spends the days at camp and develops a beautiful relationship with Briseis, a woman taken as spoils of war (yeah… that was a punch in the face, women being handed around literally as prizes). It’s not that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that Patroclus is best when Achilles is around, and Achilles is kept grounded by Patroclus. They are such a beautiful couple, in every way imaginable, that I already felt sad long before Achilles’ prophecied death.

The very end held a few surprises in store, which is all I’m going to say on that matter. But after following these two men through most of their childhood into adulthood, I closed the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction and some warm fuzzies in my stomach. This is a beautiful story and I see why it has won all sorts of acclaim when it came out. I will not soon forget Achilles and Patroclus, and no matter how many retellings of the Iliad I read or see, they will always be a couple in my mind.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Save

Save

Save

Save

I love Murderbot: Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Let me talk to you about Murderbot, the delightful protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. If you’ve been reading a surprising amount of tweets professing their undying love for something called Murderbot, and asked yourself what the hell was wrong with people, I can assure you everything’s fine. We are simply all completely enchanted by a fictional character, who is also a robot with human parts and feels awkward in social situations. You see, it all makes sense.

ALL SYSTEMS RED
by Martha Wells

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

If you manage to read that opening line and not continue, you have more willpower than me. You are also about to miss out on a great story with a stand-out protagonist. I haven’t read a lot of books narrated by an artificial intelligence (if any), but if I had to pick a favorite AI, Murderbot is definitely it. The moment it realizes it is no longer bound by its usual restrictive software – which basically forces it to do its job and nothing else – it uses this newfound freedom not to go on a rampage, but to download thousands of hours worth of soap operas. Because why not?

After the lovely introduction to my new favorite robot hero, it’s time to learn a bit more about the science fiction world of this story and the mystery that kicks off the plot. Murderbot is a security unit, there to protect a group of scientists on a mission to check out a new planet. Murderbot has all sorts of opinions about its humans, and the mix of fondness and awkwardness makes it all the more relatable. Sure, it’s a machine, but there is definitely something human there as well. I can’t really describe it, you simply have to read it yourself, but Murderbot felt so very real to me. If you’ve ever been at a party where you only knew one person and suddenly you had to make small talk with complete strangers but aren’t very good in social situations, you know what Murderbot feels like. Never mind the fact that it’s got weapons that could kill the entire room in a matter of seconds.

The mission is interrupted by an unexpected attack by… something. As the scientists try to scout out new areas, they find out that their maps aren’t complete and maybe even false. Something is definitely not right and Murderbot is doing its best to help figure out the mystery. The pacing of the plot is spot-on, going effortlessly from Murderbot’s introspection (and its hope for a few quiet hours to continue watching its entertainment) to action scenes. I also loved that the world building was done so well. No info dumps, just some tidbits here or there, leaving the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.

While Murderbot is the heart and soul of this novella, the human cast was pretty interesting as well. It’s not just about figuring out why things are going wrong with the mapping system, it also asks questions about free will, trust, and what makes a human human. Murderbot is mostly machine but capable of human emotions, of preferring some people over others, because it finds them more likable. And the people it’s assigned to become aware of that, they see that it’s not just a machine and have to make decisions accordingly. You wouldn’t feel any emotional attachment to your coffee machine (unless you’re as dependent on caffeine as I am) but a walking, talking machine that watches TV shows and protects human lives of its own free will, that’s a different story.

Since this is a very short book, the mystery is solved quickly and I wondered what kind of ending Martha Wells had chosen for this story. As lighthearted as it feels, this is a complex read that asks many questions and lets the readers reach their own answers. The ending could have messed it all up (spoiler: it didn’t). I am already giddy with excitement for the next instalment of this series and I hope we’ll get many more adventures with Murderbot. Because I love Murderbot!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

Save

Save

Brain-breaking… in a good way: Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

I’m going to tell you what everybody says and that’s the reason I stuck with this book at all. Stick with it! The first few chapters are confusing as hell and you may break your brain trying to understand what the hell is going on. But if you push through, it will all make sense and the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. Seriously! Stick with it!

NINEFOX GAMBIT
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published by: Solaris Books, 2016
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations.

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

I must admit to you guys that I did a thing. I had read about half of this book when Hugo nominations were about to close and… well, I nominated it. Without having finished the book! But as much as I felt I was doing something wrong (although, who was gonna stop me?), I can now happily report that I don’t regret it a bit. This book’s second half turned out to be, if possible, even more amazing than its beginning.

As mentioned above, don’t let the first two or three chapters put you off. It’s fine if nothing makes sense, it’s okay not to get what the hell that whole formation thing is about and what people mean when they say calendrical rot. These things are vital parts of the world building, but you don’t have to understand them right away. Just think of it as magic and go along until everything becomes clearer.

What carried me through the rather steep learning curve of this incredibly original story was the relationship between the protagonist, Kel Cheris, and the personality of prisoner/mass-murderer/potential psychopath Shuos Jedao that is implanted in her brain. Cheris is an object of her own education and while none of the things that baffle us as readers are new to her, it’s still intriguing to discover this world through her eyes. Plus, her conversations with Jedao help a little in making sense of the world, as he has been in prison torture hibernation for centuries and doesn’t know everything about the state of affairs.

So Cheris is in charge of a quest to win back the Fortress of Scattered Needles which has fallen to rebels. The calendrical rot that has gripped the Fortress threatens to take it out of control of the Hexarchate. I could tell you so many little details about the world, but learning them by yourself, bit by bit, putting puzzle pieces together in your head and getting that aha moment, is such a big part of why this novel is fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s violent and tragic and mysterious, but the reading experience as such can only be described as utter fun. Cheris and Jedao make an excellent team, even though Cheris can never be sure if Jedao is manipulating her for his own purposes – whatever those might be. And this constant dance on the sword egde, in addition to the potential conspiracies going on outside of Cheris’ head, make this book very hard to put down.

Of the many things that are fascinating, Jedao was probably my number one reason to keep turning the pages. I love characters whose motives and secret plans are never quite clear, who could be either good or evil or a bit of both. Paired with Cheris, who is – to put it in very simple terms – really good at maths, who tries to do the right thing, but who is guided by her programming as much as the next Kel, a dynamic is created that is stunning to watch. Cheris knows she can’t trust Jedao, but what if he gives great advice? What if that advice only appears to serve Cheris’ plans while actually furthering his?

It took me quite a while to read this book, although it is relatively short. But this isn’t something you can read on a train during your morning commute. This story demands your full attention, and not just because the world feels so utterly crazy, so far into the future that the functionality of weapons is dependent on a calendrical system. So I recommend you savor it, you give every chapter the attention it requires, and you read it as a mystery on many levels. Between figuring out how this world works, how society works, and what Jedao’s motives are, there is still the main plot to follow, which is military science fiction at its finest.

I am beyond happy that this book is a Hugo Award finalist, although it makes my choice on how to vote that much harder. Whether it wins or not, I am looking forward to the sequel (which will come out in June) and to anything else Yoon Ha Lee writes. And thank you to the interwebs for telling me over and over to stick with the book despite those first chapters. Without these assurances, I wouldn’t have discovered this book which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Stuff you might find interesting:

Save

Save

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

If you want a really nice YA time travel novel with complex characters and beautiful relationships, look no further than this. I still have not completely healed my relationship to YA fiction with girl protagonists and inevitable love triangles, but that makes me all the happier when I find a good one among all the crap. And Heidi Heilig is definitely and author to watch!

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE
by Heidi Heilig

Published by: Hot Key Books, 2016
Ebook: 469 pages
Series: The Girl From Everywhere #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for very much longer.

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard the Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question…

Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything. And when Nix refuses to help, her father threatens to maroon Kashmir, her only friend (and perhaps, only love) in a time where Nix will never be able to find him. And if Nix has learned one thing, it’s that losing the person you love is a torment that no one can withstand. Nix must work out what she wants, who she is, and where she really belongs before time runs out on her forever.

When you life your life aboard a time-travelling pirate ship where your father can Navigate to (almost) any time and place if only he has the right map, things get pretty exciting. And Nix’s story starts off pretty exciting as well, in India, on a sort of side quest to complete the bigger mission of rescuing Nix’s mother from dying. In the past. 17 years in the past…

Right from the start, Heidi Heilig shows that she didn’t just have one neat idea and kind of wrote a novel around that. The characters are complex and their relationships not as simple as they may first appear. Nix and her father, Slate, have an especially difficult relationship. On the one hand, they are father and daughter and they love each other. On the other hand, Slate is absolutely obsessed with saving his love – without knowing what will happen to Nix if he changes the past that drastically. Will this Nix, the one we’re reading about, still exist, alongside a second baby-Nix? Will one Nix just disappear, having never existed? Will Nix be stuck in time somehow? And most importantly: Will Slate sacrifice his only daughter to save his wife?

You see, there’s a lot going on right from the start, and that’s just in addition to the action-packed, fast plot. Me being me, I am mostly drawn in by characters and language, and Heilig did an excellent job with that. Apart from Nix and Slate, I immediately fell in love with Kashmir, Nix’s crew mate and friend (and possibly more). There is tension between these two, there is flirting, a constant back and forth of bantering and sweet gestures. Needless to say, I was hooked and rooting for these two the entire time.

I’ll leave the morality for those that like the taste of it. I always preferred bread.

But please don’t think this is merely a romance set on a ship. Once the first missions are done, the crew sets course for Hawaii and most of the plot takes place there. And this is where both romance and politics comes into play. I loved how Heilig managed to convey the beauty of the islands and the brewing political tension without ever slowing down the plot or sacrificing character development. She effortlessly paints a picture of paradise, but a paradise that cannot possibly stay that idyllic forever.

We were sailing toward the edge of the map of Calcutta under a sky so starry it looked sugared; the night would never be as beautiful after the Industrial Revolution.

Time travel stories are always filled with problems because… well, time travel. Putting a new twist on it is important and I really enjoyed the idea of having to use maps – and very specific ones – to be able to travel through time at all. Some maps just don’t work, some maps aren’t authentic, and even when the map is fine, you still need a Navigator like Slate. The whole Navigation thing felt a little cheap once it is explained, but I had not trouble just rolling with it because by that time, I was so taken in by the characters that this was just a little detail that didn’t detract from an overall enjoyable novel.

It’s also refreshing to see a diverse cast of characters as the center of a story. Nix is biracial, her crew mate Bee is a lesbian who talks to her departed spouse and it’s the most heart-breaking and hopeful and lovely little detail in the book. Kashmir is Persian (and did I mention AMAZING?) and Slate is wonderful because he is so very flawed. I didn’t really connect with Rotgut but there’s always the sequel, and final novel in the duology, to look forward to.

This was such an enjoyable book. It feels like a light read and the pages just fly by. Without noticing, suddenly you’re done and you have that satisfying feeling of having just read a wonderful story. If you don’t like series, this book is pretty self-contained so don’t have to read the sequel. But seeing as how much I fell in love with the characters and how comforting this book was, I will totally get my hands on The Ship Beyond Time.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Really good!

Second opinions:

 

Save

Surprisingly wonderful: Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

This was a second-chance read for me. Unlike everyone else in the world, I didn’t like Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it made me not want to read more books written by her. But I always give authors a second chance, especially if the book sounds intriguing enough. And now I am really confused because I loved this collection to pieces! I must give Daughter of Smoke and Bone another try, I guess. And pick up Strange the Dreamer of course.

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009
Hardcover: 266 pages
Story collection
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.

Three tales of supernatural love, each pivoting on a kiss that is no mere kiss, but an action with profound consequences for the kissers’ souls:

Goblin Fruit
In Victorian times, goblin men had only to offer young girls sumptuous fruits to tempt them to sell their souls. But what does it take to tempt today’s savvy girls?

Spicy Little Curses
A demon and the ambassador to Hell tussle over the soul of a beautiful English girl in India. Matters become complicated when she falls in love and decides to test her curse.

Hatchling
Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turns from brown to blue. She little suspects what the change heralds, but her small safe life begins to unravel at once. What does the beautiful, fanged man want with her, and how is her fate connected to a mysterious race of demons?

Oh, how I loved everything about this collection! Each story sets its own tone, weaves its own type of magic, and crushes the heart as only a true fairy tale can. The connecting theme of kisses – or at least lips touching – runs through these tales, and it shows that a kiss isn’t always the same thing.

In Goblin Fruit, Laini Taylor revisits Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem Goblin Market (of which I have a gorgeous edition here with an Arthur Rackham cover). The story begins with a sort of introduction into the tale we’re about to devour. And devour is the right word to describe what reading this felt like. The writing is beautiful – both like a fairy tale and very contemporary, but fusing the two effortlessly.

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
Them.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Kizzy is just one such girl. Never the prettiest, living outside of town with her weird family, and definitely not on the school’s hottest boy’s radar. But Kizzy wants. And then Jack shows up and sweeps her off her feet, into the sort of fairy tale romance young girls dream of.

I adored this story for many reasons, and the writing is only one of them. But the way Laini Taylor managed to put teenage hopes and dreams into one character so realistically, it made me want to scream. YES! Yes, I felt like that. I’d hazard a guess that most girls reading this book weren’t the prettiest girl in their school/university/social circle, and that, yes, sometimes we resent ourselves for not being as (seemingly) perfect as that one girl who attracts all the men. In Kizzy, all of these feelings are present, but she never appears like a special snowflake kind of YA heroine. She doesn’t magically turn into a gorgeous babe, but – very naturally and understandable – she falls completely and utterly for the one (super handsome) boy who seems interested in her, who doesn’t even notice other girls. It’s a sort of teenage wish fulfillment story but, unlike some crap YA novels, it doesn’t end in a fairy tale wedding or some other bullshit.

Spicy Little Curses is set in India, where an English widow takes tea with a demon. If that wasn’t already cool enough, they have tea to discuss and trade souls. Estella wishes to save children from death by natural disaster, and Vasudev the demon just wants as many souls as he can get. So they discuss and they barter. And a curse is born.

At the British parties in Jaipur, gossip swirled wild on eddies of whiskeyed breath.

The story then focuses on the cursed child, a girl who was given the most beautiful voice in the world but anyone who hears it immediately falls down dead. Because Estella is no fool, she made sure the little girl wouldn’t kill everyone around her by crying. And Anamique grows up silent. There is a romance, there is more beautiful language, but most of all, there is a tortured young girl whose entire life is based on belief! Anamique restrains herself, she refuses her greatest pleasure – music – and grows up almost as an outcast. People think of her as a simpleton because she never speaks. The descriptions of her life were incredibly hard to read, because her desire to sing, to enjoy music through her voice, not just the piano, broke my heart.

But framing Anamique’s story is still the tale of Estella, by far the coolest and most bad-ass widow I’ve ever read about. There is a surprising amount of world building and great side characters, considering the story isn’t very long. There’s magic and demons, longing and love, and playing tricks on the devil, which is always fun.

Hatchling is the longest of the three tales in this collection, and while not my favorite still excellent. It’s about Mab and her daughter Esmé who are more than they appear at first glance. Teading this is a lot like a dream, or like following the White Rabbit into its burrow where you fall deeper and deeper into this other world, without really noticing the borders. The tale begins with with little Esmé’s eye turning from brown to blue, her mother panicking because of that, and fleeing from London with her daughter. But they are being followed by mysterious beings, one of whom may not be the enemy.

We later learn Mab’s story, why she is running away, why she is so fiercely protective of her daughter. And it’s a tale of terror, let me assure you. Mab grew up, we find out slowly and with much horror, among a group of immortal demons, the Druj. They are fascinated by children, not being able to reproduce themselves or, indeed, age. So the way Mab grew from a baby into a child into a young woman entertained the Druj queen for a while. And then, after an already terrifying childhood, things get worse.

Apart from Mab’s story, we also learn more about the Druj and their rituals, their magic, their shape-shifting from one of their own, Mihai. It is pretty clear from the start that Mihai is not quite like the others, but the way his story unfolds, bit by bit, sometimes hidden away, was just fascinating. While Esmé and Mab’s running away from the Druj hunters is a framing story, it also ends up bringing the three sub-plots together and making a beautiful whole.

I took a while to warm to this story, especially because the other two had set the bar so high, but when I did, I felt fully at home in the cold world of stone spires where the Druj live. The characters were fantastic, even the ones you would normally see as a villain in a fairy tale. Nobody is only what they seem, everyone has at least one more layer that we get to discover, and probably many more layers we don’t see. But they all felt like real people, even the Druj. My favorite part of this story was how Laini Taylor played with imagery and colors. The Druj’s icy blue eyes, Mab and Esmés red hair, the monsters’ pale arms… wolves, eyes, ravens, and cages. I absolutely loved this.

So, all things (and stories) considered, I have nothing to complain about. This book is beautifully written, with a nice design and lovely art, and a way of weaving myth and fairy tale into three very different settings and eras. All the while, Taylor offered up a riveting plot wrapped in exquisite language. Send more of this, and send tons of it!

MY RATING: 8,5 – Excellent!

Look at more gorgeous art by Jim di Bartolo;

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save