The Road is the Destination: Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

In my quest to read as many Hugo (or in this case, Lodestar) nominated books as I possibly can, I jumped head first into the new-ish YA category with the book I had heard the most about. Opinions seem to go in opposite directions. Either people loved the book or they hated it so much they didn’t even finish. As I happen to like quieter, character-focused books, I was intrigued and quite sure this would be my cup of tea.

TESS OF THE ROAD
by Rachel Hartman

Published by: Random House, 2018
Ebook: 544 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons can be whomever they choose. Tess is none of these things. Tess is. . . different. She speaks out of turn, has wild ideas, and can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Then Tess goes too far. What she’s done is so disgraceful, she can’t even allow herself to think of it. Unfortunately, the past cannot be ignored. So Tess’s family decide the only path for her is a nunnery.
But on the day she is to join the nuns, Tess chooses a different path for herself. She cuts her hair, pulls on her boots, and sets out on a journey. She’s not running away, she’s running towards something. What that something is, she doesn’t know. Tess just knows that the open road is a map to somewhere else–a life where she might belong.
Returning to the spellbinding world of the Southlands she created in the award-winning, New York Times bestselling novel Seraphina, Rachel Hartman explores self-reliance and redemption in this wholly original fantasy.

Tess Dombegh is lady-in-waiting to her twin sister, so the latter can find a suitable husband at court, even though Tess is the older twin. The Dombegh family keeps that fact a secret, however, because, there is something in Tess’ past that would disgrace them all. Once Jeanne, the younger twin, is married, there are few options for Tess and neither of them appeals much to her. So she does what any spirited young woman in her place would do – she runs away from home on a quest to… nothing in particular, but really everything, as it turns out.

It is so easy to fall into this book, to get sucked into life at court, the dynamic between Tess and the rest of her family, but the first few chapters are a little deceptive. They are fast-moving, include lots of dialogue, and introduce Tess to the readers. So far, so good. Except the rest of the book continues in a very different tone. I personally loved it but I can see how other readers may feel cheated out of the quippy relationship drama they may have come to expect from the beginning. But the bulk of the novel is really what it says on the tin. It’s Tess. On the Road. She and her childhood best friend – a quigutl (lizard-like people) named Pathka – walk along together, finding ways to feed themselves (stealing, doing chores for dinner, even proper jobs), and they meet new people.

There are so many layers to this book and so much to love about it, I hardly know where to start. As she’s the heart of the tale and also in the title, I’ll go with Tess herself. It is very clear that something inside Tess is broken. She is bitter, she constantly hears her mother’s reprimanding voice in her head, she feels like a failure and a bad person, like she is unworthy of love. I don’t want to spoil what her big secret is, even though most of it comes out pretty soon in the book. Tess learning to live with her past and making the best of who she has become is really what this is all about.
Pathka, her best friend, has his own quest to follow and while it starts as a red herring, it also becomes much more important than expected. Pathka wants to find the mythical World Serpents, giant creatures said to roam underground caverns. But as they are only legends, Tess assumes, Pathka is on an equally spiritual journey as herself.

Like any good road trip story, there is a variety of people to be met, helped, escape from, and befriend. Rachel Hartman really showed her skill here, because  this could have felt episodic quickly. Tess walks, gets to a town/farmhouse/quarry/whatever, meets some people and interacts with them, then walks on. But it never did feel episodic, quite the opposite. The characters our two wanderers meet are quite diverse. Whether it’s a senile old man in the clutches of two villains, an order of nuns, a group of roadworkers, a proper prostitute (who makes Tess blush furiously!), a girl in need of rescue, monks protecting an ancient secret, or old friends… there are many stories contained within this larger one. And every story both teaches Tess something abut the world and about herself. The nagging voice in her head grows quieter, she stands taller, she slowly learns who she is.

I can’t express how touching certain moments of this book were. Although Tess is definitely not interested in romance, there is so much love in this story. Love between sisters – real love, that includes ugly fights – or love between friends like her and Pathka. Love for stories and adventure, and above all love for the Road and a desire to see what else the world has to offer. Not only Tess showed kindness to strangers, but strangers showed her kindness as well, and these seemingly random acts of humanity always make me a bit weepy. Yes, there are people who do bad things (whether that makes them bad people per se is up for anyone to decide), but there are also good people who will stand up for others and help those who need it.

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, this was a fantastic book. I wasn’t a fan of the quigutl language – even as a German speaker, there were too many consonants in a row for my taste – but I did like the world building, especially the variety of Saints and their (sometimes crazy) teachings. Seeing the household Tess grew up in makes it much more understandable why she feels the way she does. If you’re taught all women are good for is suffering and doing their duty, then enjoying even the littlest thing makes you feel guilty. Tess has even bigger problems because according to her mother’s favored Saint, Tess is basically going straight to hell.

One thing I found quite curious while reading was how, whenever I put the book away, I wasn’t at all giddy to pick it up again. It’s not the kind of book that makes you want to know What Happens Next, it’s more a book that makes you think and thinking is best done while not reading a story. When I would pick it up again, I was hooked immediately every time and couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t more excited to continue reading. So that’s not a bad thing, just something I found curious and more about myself than the book. The only negative thing I could say about this book is that some of the flashbacks didn’t feel  quite right. Tess and Will’s prank on a fellow student, for example, felt weird and like it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story. I would have preferred some other anectode of Tess’ former life, but that’s really nitpicky of me and shouldn’t keep you from reading this book.

The ending was the one thing that could have ruined it. You’ll have guessed from my rating that it didn’t. Indeed, Hartman managed to find the perfect bittersweet spot (more on the sweet than the bitter side) that hit all the right notes and ended this story the exact way it should: with a beginning.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – DAMN EXCELLENT!

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Djinn and Court Intrigue: S. A. Chakraborty – The City of Brass

The internet has been abuzz with this book ever since it came out and I had no particular reason to wait this long to finally read it. What gave me the final push was Chakraborty’s nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I’m glad I read this even though my plans to read all the Hugo nominations are getting overthrown now. Because before I can ready anything else, I need to get my hands on the sequel.

THE CITY OF BRASS
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
eBook: 534
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He was an easy mark.

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for…

Nahri is a con-artist, swindeling the gullible people of Cairo out of their money by working with her friend, an apothecary, and by performing magical rites said to expel djinn from people who have been possessed. When one such rite goes kind of wrong and Nahri actually summons something, she has to learn about a world she has never believed in. One people with djinn and flying bird-men and dangerous marids.

It turns out, djinn are real and they have quite complicated politics of their own. We learn about these politics on the one hand through the second protagonist Ali, who lives in Daevabad, the City of Brass (also in case you haven’t guessed it: a city of djinn). As the second son to the king, he will not inherit the throne, but he is the head of the military and sworn to protect his older brother, and serve him one day when he ascends the throne.

Nahri and her freshly-summoned (and more than a bit grumpy about it) daeva “friend” Dara spend a large part of the novel fleeing from the ifrit, fire beings who want to kill Nahri because she appears to be the last heir of the Nahids – a tribe of djinn thought to be eradicated in the war 1400 years ago. You can already see, things get a bit complicated. Not only does djinn history from centuries ago still feature prominently in current affairs, Nahri is just as clueless as the reader in everything to do with djinn (or daeva, if you’re talking about purebloods), but she is apparently super important and has all that duty crash down upon her.

I have to say, reading this was quite an adventure. I fell into the world easily, the pages flew by without me noticing, but the reason it was so compelling kept changing. At first, I just wanted to know what the hell was going on – much like Nahri – and make sure this protagonist that I liked survived long enough to reach Daevabad. Then it becomes clear that Dara has secrets. Lots and lots of secrets, most of them not pleasant, some of them truly dark, and he probably has some more that we haven’t learned about by the end of this book.

Ali’s story line annoyed me at first, because without any knowledge of Daevabad politics, it was hard to know who to root for. Ali was a protagonist so surely he’s a good guy, right? Well… let’s just say the author did a great job of throwing her readers into a world and letting them figure out for themselves who’s good and who’s bad and – much more commonly – who’s somwhere in between. Ali himself is a difficult character but his story line definitely grew on me. The tensions in Daevabad are many. On the one hand, pure blooded daeva are secretly or not-so-secretly unhappy about the ruling family. They also don’t much like shafits – djinn who come from mixed djinn and human parents – and the shafit, in return, feel like they are treated badly, their living conditions are terrible, their children are being kidnapped and nothing much is done about it. Daevabad may be described as a bustling city with a varied population, but learning about it while reading made it clear that underneath the surface, there is as much going on as on it.

The one thing I’m on the fence about is the love story. I quite like the pairing that came up but I felt the author couldn’t decide whether she should show us how the two characters felt for each other or simply tell us. We are definitely told too often how Nahri grows all warm at the sight of a certain, handsome guy, but then again, there are also beautiful moments that don’t require words, that simply show how these two are drawn to each other. I’m totally here for the romance, I just think it could have been done better.

As for the ending: Are you kidding me?! I thought I had some things figured out, I thought I knew after 500 pages what was in store for me, vaguely knew where the story was going – nope. I didn’t. What’s more, while the ending was good and does end the story on a somewhat satisfying note, there is no way I can wait long to read the sequel. I need more of Chakraborty’s ideas, more Daevabad, I want to learn about all the different types of djinn, pure blooded or shafit. I want to know about Nahri’s parents, about her past and her future. In short, the author’s got me hooked and I can’t wait to read more by her.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

Post-Apocalyptic Family Confusions: Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

I read and loved Sam J. Miller’s book The Art of Starving last year, so there was no question I’d check out his non-YA novel. This book cemented my opinion that Miller is an author to watch and one whose books I can buy without hesitation.

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Ecco, 2018
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse.

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Qaanaaq is a floating city in the Arctic Circle, built by rich men to flee a world devastated by climate change and war. It is run by AI, is heated by geothermal vents, and it’s rife with poverty. Add to that a new-ish disease, “the breaks”, and you’ve got a most intriguing setting, and that’s before anything resembling a plot has even started, before you’ve met any of the characters. Needless to say, this book had me excited from a very early point and kept my interest up through to the end.

The story  is told through four (occasionally more) POV characters who don’t appear to be connected at first but who will be brought together through Qaanaaq’s newest arrival – a woman who rode into the city on a orca, accompanied by a polar bear. Or so the stories go at least. Through the eyes of these very different protagonists, we don’t only get to know them, but we also learn about the city. And the city absolutely counts as a character in its own right.

Fill is a young man who must grapple with the hard truth that he has caught the breaks. So he considers his life as good as over, he is haunted by weird visions or dreams or memories more and more often, and even his wealth cannot help because there is no known cure. With Fill, we see Qaanaaq very differently than with the other characters, because his grandfather is an extremely rich man. So while Fill knows that parts of the city are overflowing with people who sleep in boxes (because there is no living space), he is not affected himself and his thoughts reflect that.
What I particularly liked about Fill’s chapters – I didn’t care for him as a person all that much – was his obsession with the broadcast “City Without a Map”. Nobody knows who writes these texts that talk about their city, show its beautiful and its ugly side, give accounts of things that happen, etc. Each broadcast is narrated by someone else, people without any obvious connection. But these texts were beautiful to read and did wonders for the world-building.

Fill may be a rich boy with little to worry about. Genderfluid Soq, on the other hand, is almost at the opposite end of the city’s wealth divide. They do sleep in a box, hunting job after job just to get by. At the same time, Soq felt  surprisingly savvy and wise to me, although they are very young. Soq works for one of Qaanaaq’s crime bosses and aspires to become on themself one day.

Probably my favorite characters at the start were Ankit and Kaev, the only two that are connected at the beginning of the story. Kaev is a fighter, paid to fight (and sometimes to lose) the spectacular battles that provide entertainment for Qaanaaq’s population. He is also Ankit’s brother but he suffers from some form of brain damage that includes memory loss. So these two never really connected. I loved Ankit because although it’s her job to look the other way when she sees people suffering from the breaks, she just can’t. Working for a politician does that to you.

All of these characters are simply going their own way and doing their own thing when the story begins. What changes everything is the arrival of the orcamancer, who at first is nothing more than an urban legend. But because of this woman, the course of every character’s life changes and – surprise! – they all come together somehow. I won’t tell you the orcamancer’s back story or how everything is connected, but I really enjoyed the revelations in this book.
It was just after the first big reveal that the plot got a bit slow. But like I said, all character get together and find out that their individual plans go pretty well together, so why not team up for an epic ending?

While this wasn’t a very comforting book to read – after all, the world is broken, many lives have been lost, and life in Qaanaaq is nothing more than pure survival for most – but it was an incredibly rewarding, exciting read. Finding out how the city works was almost as much fun as figuring the characters out. The social structures, the politics, the infrastructure of Qaanaaq – everything was just so interesting. And let’s not forget the past! It is often mentioned that the water levels rose, climate change has ruined most of the planet, ressources got low, there was war all over the place, and only some escaped to a place they could still live. Some things are almost like legends in people’s mind, like the nanobonded, people who have a mind-connection with animals and can control them. Were they real? Did they die out? How? All of these questions are not even the main plot but I wanted to find out the answers, so even when the plot slowed down a bit, I was never bored.

There is so much more to discover in Qaanaaq than I’ve talked about. The technology (chin implants to translate the numerous languages represented), the diversity, the orca and the polar bear… I could go on and on. But because I’d rather not spoil the fun for you, I will simply say I highly recommend this book and I totally think it should take home and award or two.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

As someone who has never found their way into Urban Fantasy, I am more than delighted to see the different directions this sub-genre is going. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning set familiar story tropes in a new and original setting, and this book here – while set in an alternate Edwardian England – also puts its own and rather wonderful spin on it. Go, Urban Fantasy! You may turn me into a fan just yet.

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

Published by: Tor.com, 2018
Ebook: 318 pages
Series: The Kingston Cycle #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Doctor Miles Singer is in hiding. He works at a veterans’ hospital, trying to help his suffering patients as best he can and without the use of the magic he secretly possesses. When a dying man arrives at the hospital and knows about Miles’ magic as well as the cause of his own death (poison, he says), things get a little out of control. Together with the enigmatic Tristan Hunter, who brought the poisoned man to the hospital, Miles has to set out and figure out the mystery of this murder. But that also means he has to go out into the world, confront his estranged family, and discover secrets that range far wider than he would have thought.

Discovering the world of Witchmark was fun from the very beginning. The author doesn’t present everything on a silver plate but rather lets you figure everything out for yourself from context, from dialogue and description, from the way the characters act. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it when authors trust their readers to put things together for themselves. While set in an alternate Edwardian England, there are things that immediately stand out as fantastical, first among them the fact that there is magic. We learn early on that Miles possesses a magical gift and that he can use it to heal people. But it is only later that we find out how Miles fits into the larger world of magic and why he ran away from his family and his duties.

The plot starts out as a murder mystery and sticks to the tropes most of the time. Tristan and Miles investagate places and interview people, you know the deal. It could have been boring but with added bicycle chases and a wonderfully engaging sub-plot about Miles and his family, the book was exciting all the way. There are also two rather important plot twists, one of which I kind of saw coming (although not its details), the other of which made me gasp out loud. The only thing I didn’t really buy was the romance. I really liked where things where going but I felt there wasn’t enough there to base a relationship on. We should have seen more conversations, more moments between the two characters to understand why they fell for each other.

Polk also created some wonderful characters, not just in Miles and Tristan (who has his own secrets which I will not spill but you should totally read the book because it’s super cool), but also in Miles’ sister Grace. She is one of those characters that you think you’ve figured out from the first meeting but then she shows unknown depths. Her relationship with Miles is a very, very difficult one because of the way this society works and the way it deals with mages. Without spoilers, it’s impossible to talk about details, but rest assured that there is more to Grace than meets the eye and that she truly does love her brother.

What made the book work for me was mostly Miles as a character and finding out why he ran away to fight in the war rather than stay with his wealthy, respected family. He is yearning for freedom, for agency, for a place of his own even if it is tiny and he could afford something much larger and better. Understanding why he chooses a life that at first appears so much worse than what he could have had, was a lot of fun to discover and made both Miles and the world he lives in more interesting. There are also plenty of things that I want to explore more so I’m more than happy that this is the first book of a series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It was charming and original, it sets up many things that will have repercussions in the sequel, and it made me really like the characters. While maybe not award-worthy (it’s nominated for a Nebula), this was a fun read that got better as it went along.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Epic bunnies: Richard Adams – Watership Down

When the TV show LOST was all the rage, I made plans to read all the books Sawyer read, among which was Watership Down. After about 50 pages, I gave up, unable to dive into the minds of rabbits and go with them on their long journey. I thought this simply wasn’t for me. I found it silly and a bit boring and abandoned the book. Until, last year, I picked it up again (because I’m nice to my books like that) and finished it in a couple of days. I still can’t explain why, but let this be a lesson to me, that sometimes, you just need to wait for the right time to read a particular book. I’m certainly glad I read this one!

WATERSHIP DOWN
by Richard Adams

Published by: Avon Books, 1972
Paperback: 478 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The primroses were over.

Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

When Fiver, smaller than most other rabbits and not taken seriously by them, shares a vision of their home’s destruction, only Hazel believes him. Fiver says they need to get away from the warren and find a new home if they want to survive because Something Terrible Will Happen. Although Hazel is a respected rabbit, only a small group join these two on their journey into unknown lands – and so begins the rather epic tale of Watership Down.

As someone who has never seent he movie as a kid (from what I hear, my parents spared me enormous childhood trauma), I had no idea where these rabbits wanted to go but I was game to follow them. Not only did I immediately enjoy the mythology and language that Adams has built around his furry protagonists, but I also found I liked their characters. They may be rabbits and as such rather similar, but each of them is also a distinct person. Impulsive and sometimes aggressive Bigwig (he was my favorite), calm and clever Hazel, tormented Fiver who shows such bravery event hough he thinks he’s a coward – they grew on me in a kind of sneaky way and it was only when they were in danger (which happens a lot, to be fair) that I realised how much I wanted them to be okay and reach this new home they’re dreaming of.

Their journey is a truly epic one. It leads them to other warrens, has them face dangerous animals – it’s not easy being a rabbit and as such prey for most other creatures you encounter – and also to political and social problems. How do you start a new warren without female rabbits? How do you trick a cat? How do you save your friends who have been captured by a superbly evil rabbit who is one of the best villains I’ve ever read about, never mind his furry face. How do you cross a river, for that matter? Find food and shelter? Richard Adams must truly love rabbits because I don’t think I know any other book with an animal character where I felt so much like the creature I was reading about.

I also loved that while these rabbits were clearly rabbits and don’t act rationally a lot of the time (or what humans would consider rational, at least), they also have a social structure and a group dynamic that is just as frail as in a human group. Decisions about who gets to be the leader and whether to take a peaceful or an aggressive approach must be made and they are often discussed among the rabbits. I thought this was especially well done in a scene where one rabbit gets caught in a snare. By trying to pull on it, it only gets drawn tighter, but rabbit instinct dictates that the rabbit must get away so he pulls and pulls. But these aren’t just any old rabbits, so the others come to help and fight their natural instincts to help each other and to trick humans and larger animals alike.

I will never understand why I couldn’t finish the book on my first try because I breezed through it so effortlessly the second time around. This was a truly enjoyable read, particularly because of the mythology about El-Ahrairah and how rabbits came to be what they are. The effort Richard Adams put into this is astounding and I am so, so glad I gave this book another chance. Because it turned out to be a lighter Lord of the Rings with rabbits and who’d want to miss that?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

More than Nigerian Harry Potter: Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Witch

I chose the rather provocative title for this post on purpose. On the one hand, Harry Potter draws attention and I definitely want lots of people to pay attention to this book. On the other hand, Nnedi Okorafor managed to get a sort of Harry Potter vibe in this book, all while writing something completely original and her own. I read the sequel right after this book which is really something, considering how many book series I’ve started and not finished…

AKATA WITCH
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Viking Children’s, 2011
Paperback: 349 pages
Series: Akata Witch #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The moment Sunny walked into the schoolyard, people started
pointing.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

In many ways, Akata Witch is similar to Harry Potter. A young girl finds out she belongs to a hidden, magical world. She makes friends, learns about her new powers, all while taking down evil. If that were all this story was then it would still be a great story – but it so, so much more than that. The plot is just the surface layer. It keeps things moving, it keeps up the pace and makes the pages fly as you read. But it’s not why I fell so hard for this book.

Sunny Nwazue is an outsider wherever she goes. With her West African features, she looks like her Nigerian friends, But she’s albino, so her skin is white, her hair is blonde, and she can’t go in the sun because her skin burns too easily. Also, children are cruel, and because Sunny looks different from the others, she doesn’t quite fit in. Until she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha – a delightfully diverse mix of friends who all happen to be Leopard People. Leopard People is what magical folks are called in this story, while us muggles (sorry) are called lambs. However, even as a Leopard Person, Sunny is slightly special in that her magic jumped a generation and her parents are both non-magical. This makes her a “free agent” – basically someone with magic abilities who wasn’t taught from early childhood and now has to catch up on all the knowledge her friends already possess.

I could tell you all the little details of Okorafor’s magical world of Leopard People but I don’t want to take that experience away from anyone. The comparison to Harry Potter may not be entirely fair, but as I mentioned before, it is more the feeling rather than the ideas themselves that reminded me of that beloved childhood series. And if you loved the details in Harry Potter, you are sure to love these as well. The magic world is entirely different from anything I’ve read before, infused with West African mythology, with masquerades and a magical currency, with books written by and about Leopard People. It is simply delightful to discover all of this with Sunny.
My heart was especially taken with the book Sunny is given – “Fast Facts for Free Agents”  – of which a part is quoted at the end of each chapter. The narration of that fictional book was a joy to read. It is not written so much as a helpful guide (or at least not only as a helpful guide) but it has a sassy, snappy tone that made me giggle every time it came up. It also helped to flesh out the Leopard world through lore.

Another standout part were the characters. Sunny may feel like an outsider but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she simply takes things as they are and tries to make the best of them. When she discovers her magical abilities, she reacts very much as one would expect her to. She is bewildered and excited, eager to learn but scared to make mistakes. She is happy to finally have a place where she belongs and people who are true friends but the magical world is daunting and large and she knows almost nothing about it. In short, Sunny was easy to love.

Equally as wonderful were Sunny’s friends. Orlu, who is kind of the responsible father figure of the quartet, Chici, the excitable, talkative girl, and Sasha, who is American like Sunny. I read this book but I listened to the audiobook of the sequel, so let me tell you that the narrator does a phenomenal job of giving each character their own voice and personality. I highly recommend going for the audiobook with this duology. For the accents, for the wonderful narration of “Fast Facts for Free Agents” and for the different voices given to the characters.

Another thing I loved was the message of this book. Leopard People are often people who are considered to have “flaws” in the Lamb world. Sunny’s albinism may give her a disadvantage in our world, but in the Leopard world, it can be a strength. The same goes for people with ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Leopard society teaches you to embrace those perceived flaws because they are what makes you you. Even if the young people who read this book don’t find themselves as part of a hidden magical society, the book sends a beautiful message. Love yourself, love your flaws, don’t let the bullies get you down!

As for the plot, most of it is obivously Sunny learning about Leopard People and finding her place in this new world. But because there has to be something evil to defeat – and it wouldn’t be such a great story if there wasn’t – there is Black Hat Otokoto, a serial killer who has been roaming the area. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that Sunny and her friends will have to use everything they have learned to defeat him.

I really hope my comparisons to Harry Potter don’t put anyone off this book but rather make you want to pick it up. Because although there are similarities (and let’s face it, there are many other books that share the same aspects of “normal” person discovers they belong to a secret magical world), this book stands very well on its own, it has so much to say, and it is a wonderful exploration of an underrepresented kind of fantasy. Set in Nigeria, based on African mythology, this book feels like a fresh wind in the mass of YA fantasies.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

What an ending! Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising

I may not have liked Shadow and Bone very much, but I loved Siege and Storm and where the story was going. Finishing this trilogy can not have been easy for the author because the whole story could fail with a botched ending. Happily, Leigh Bardugo managed to write a fantastic end to a great trilogy. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm below!

RUIN AND RISING
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt,  2014
Hardcover: 422 pages
Series: The Grisha #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The monster’s name was Izumrud, the great worm, and there were those who claimed he had made the tunnels that ran beneath Ravka. 

The capital has fallen.
The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.
Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.
Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.
Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

It is such a pleasure to see an author grow better and better with every book. The Grisha Trilogy really improved with every instalment so it’s no surprise that I thought this third book was the best of them – and it even managed to nail the ending which I was quite  worried about.

The way Siege and Storm ends makes you think you’re in for a stereotypical quest story in the final book. Alina, Mal, and a handful of others need to seek out the firebird to get the third amplifier so Alina can be strong enough to finally defeat the Darkling. I have  nothing against quest fantasies but I won’t lie – I really liked how this turned out to be something quite different.

The country is at war, the Darkling holds the capital, the Grisha are gravely diminished – basically, everything is falling apart and there is very little hope that there will be peace anytime soon. Yet Alina battles on because there isn’t much else she can do, and since she has grown so much since the beginning of this story, there is no way she’ll just lie down and wait for the end without a proper fight. Her character growth was one of the most fascinating things about this trilogy. From a shy, somewhat naive young girl, she grows into herself. Although she may not enjoy the attention she’s getting and the cult that has formed around her alleged sainthood, she knows that she holds great power and that the fate of her country and the people she loves lies in her hands, at least to some degree. That’s quite a burden for a young woman, especially when all she really wants is to snuggle up with Mal and live a quiet life out of the spotlight.

Speaking of Mal: He grew on me so much during this book. In Siege and Storm, he already showed his personality (while I think in the first book he was rather cardboard), but here he rises to new heights and makes the reader see what Alina sees in him. That guy is a hero if there ever was one! The same goes for the other side characters. Genya and David, Tamar and Tolya, even Zoya who started out as nothing but a mean girl in the Little Palace. Each and every one of them got to show off their talents, their loyalty, and their importance to the story. They aren’t just window dressing, they are vital parts of every plan – and in case you forgot, that plan is about saving the world. So no pressure.

These are my gorgous hardback editions that now live happily on my shelves next to Maggie Stiefvater. 🙂

My favorite side character – and no doubt many other readers’ as well – is definitely Nikolai Lantsov. You just have to love his cocky, funny way, especially in a story about such dark themes. He is a ray of sunshine in a world filled with darkness and pain. I don’t know if he started out simply as comic relief (a job he does so, so well) but it is always clear that there is much more to him than charm and beauty. And let’s just say he goes through some crazy scary stuff in this book that I was not sure he’d ever get out of. Or if he did, he wouldn’t be the same as before.  All the more delight for fans like me that he now gets his very own duology, starting with King of Scars. YAY!

As mentioned before, the plot may begin as a not-so-simple quest that takes a surprising and heartbreaking turn. But underlying it all is an undercurrent of politics and big Life Questions. Nikolai is now successor to the throne of Ravka and with that come a lot of new questions and responsibilities, only one of which is that he needs to think about getting married and producing heirs. Because royalty. Alina understands more and more that, while she may love Mal and only think about Nikolai as a friend, a political union between the Sun Summoner and the next king of Ravka makes so much sense. In the quieter moments of the novel, when nothing explodes for a while and nobody’s life is in immediate danger, it is these questions that make  the story so damn enjoyable.

Without giving too much away, I need to talk about the ending for a bit. I was so sure I had it all figured out and I prepared myself mentally for something very, very bittersweet. In a story about war, even if the big things work out the way they were planned, you know it’s not going to be all wonderful. People die, friends are lost, lives are forever altered by the big gaping hole of losing your home or your family. But even if you get into this story fully convinced that, in the end, good will win (however you define good) and the Darkling will be defeated, there will be surprises in store for you. I may actually have misled myself a bit because I read the Six of Crows duology before this and I maaaay have come across a something spoilery. But even that didn’t rui the ending for me because Leigh Bardugo is a genius and I am now her fan forever.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!