So Much Better on a Re-Read: Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I don’t usually write reviews when I re-read a book but this time, I simply had to. Because this is probably the only case where a book I disliked a lot turned into a book I really loved! It goes to show that what you read before you pick up a book and your current mood makes a huge difference. I think the first time I read this, I had read too many bad YA books and went into it prejudiced or at least very carefully. When my expectations weren’t met, I was annoyed. And the love story kind of threw me.
This time around, I knew what to expect, I was in the right mood, and I ended up loving it. Sure, I still have some reservations (holy crap, the dialogue is cheesy on occasion) but I was much more forgiving on those parts because everything else was just so beautiful.

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE
by Laini Taylor

Published: Little, Brown, 2011
Ebook: 420 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.
When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Karou is a young, blue-haired art student who lives in Prague. She also secretly works for a group of chimeara – human-animal hybrids or monsters or whatever you want to call them – running errands for them. Errands that mostly have her collecting teeth from different places all over the world. Through doors that turn into magical portals, she can get to far-off places quite easily and bring back teeth to her foster father Brimstone. Karou was raised by Brimstone and his monster friends but she doesn’t actually know who she is, who her biological parents are, or where she comes from. So even though she has otherworldly beauty and a best friend, she always feels sort of lost in the world. Like there’s a part of her missing.

Oh man, there is so much to love in this story. Having read Strange the Dreamer and some shorter works by Laini Taylor, I have to say that this feels very much like an early work. The beginnings of her genius are there but her lyrical language often veers into kitsch, something that doesn’t happen at all in her later books. What bothered me immensely the first time I read this was the description of people’s looks. Both Karou and Akiva are so beautiful that Laini Taylor unpacked a whole list of cliché descriptions that simply made me roll my eyes. Those parts were just as painful on the re-read as they were the first time. But at least I was prepared and tried to ignore it and concentrate on the other parts of the story.

And the story packs a punch. When black handprints appear on the portals Karou uses, she knows something isn’t right. When she is cut off from the only family she has evern known and has to fear for their lives, it’s time to act on her own. Even if that means talking to the weird (but of course, crazy beautiful) angel who almost killed her and who seems responsible for her dire situation. When Karou and Akiva do talk, the secrets that are revealed are way bigger than Karou could have expected. And that’s all I can say about that without spoiling. But there are twists within twists and they work because – despite the cheesy language – Laini Taylor makes us care for these characters first.

Karou wasn’t the easiest character to like. She feels a bit aloof what with all her secret-keeping and the magical abilities granted to her by Brimstone, in the form of wishes. Being a teenager, she only gets small wishes – just enough to make her hair blue without having to dye it, or to give a nasty ex-boyfriend an uncomfortable itch. But Karou is after the bigger wishes, the ones that can make you fly or turn invisible. And honestly, how can I fault her? I would totally get myself teleportation powers and invisibility… But it took me a while to actually like her. Maybe it’s because she is described as being so beautiful and well-liked that I couldn’t really identify with her. But the more the story progresses and the more it becomes evident that Karou has real problems to deal with, the more I liked her. Even the ridiculous insta-love is forgivable once you’ve read the entire book.

Another strange storytelling choice was the cut from Karou’s storyline to a story from the magical world of the chimaera. It is such a crass cut that totally jarred me out of the reading experience when I first read this book.  Once you have read the entire book, it does make sense, but when you go into it for the first time, it just feels weird to completely leave Karou behind and go to a different character’s story for many chapters without ever checking back with Karou. Maybe alternating chapters would have been a better idea, maybe this is the right way to tell the story, I don’t know. But I also knew to expect this and so the wanting-to-finally-get-back-to-Karou wasn’t all that bad this time. And, unlike last time, I really enjoyed this flashback because I could just enjoy it for what it was. Madrigal’s story shows us this amazing other world, the one that Karou doesn’t really know. The one where Brimstone and Issa came from.

I can’t really put my finger on why this book worked so damn well for me this time when I kind of hated it the first time around. Sure, knowing ahead of time what things I won’t like helped. But I believe it mostly had to do with my own mindset and some prejudices about YA romantic fantasties that I have since left behind me (mostly). Whatever it really was, I am so very glad I gave this series another chance because I will definitely continue reading the trilogy and anthing else Laini Taylor publishes. The good thing is, I already know her writing gets better with every book (having adored Strange the Dreamer and Lips Touch: Three Times), so I fully expect to like the second and third novels in this trilogy even more.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Breath-Taking Debut: Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

This book is a sneaky bastard, in the very best of ways! It was actually the first book I read during my vacation but because there’s just so much contained within these two covers, my review took a bit more time. I picked this out mostly because I loved the cover and while I hadn’t heard much about it, every review I had read was glowing. And then, like other readers before me, I fell head over heels in love with this brilliant debut.

DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE
by Joan He

Published: AW Teen, 2019
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone (for now!)
My rating: 8,5/10

Opening line: A well-conceived costume is a new identity, the father used to say as he put on his commoner’s cloak.

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.
Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.
Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?
In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.

Hesina’s father has just died and she is the only one convinced that it was not because of natural causes. Without any proof however, she takes a dangerous step and commits treason by seeking the help of a soothsayer. With the bits of information gained this way, she plans for a trial to prove her father was murdered and to find out who the killer was. For that, she needs the support of a convicted criminal but also lots of help from her brother and her two adopted siblings.

This book starts out like your standard YA fantasy fare. The Chinese-inspired setting is intriguing, there is a sort of magic system to discover – although magic in the form of soothsayers has been outlawed for many years – and there’s a whole fictional country’s history to learn about. So I liked the book right from the start. But then Joan He slowly reeled me in with new ideas, secrets within secrets, tangled plot strings, and characters that are so amazing and come in all shades of morally grey, by about a third of the book, I absolutely loved it!

I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because discovering all the twists and turns for yourself is part of what makes the reading experience so great. But the story has a lot more to offer than just a great plot. Hesina makes for a phenomenal protagonist. She is a good person at heart and deep down, she disagrees with the rule that says all soothsayers must be killed because they were used for evil during the war. She sees them as people but she is unable to state that opinion because that would get her executed as well. Then there’s the fact that she is to become queen and the responsibility weighs heavy on her. Add to that the strained relationship with her brother Sanjing, and the even worse relationship between him and their adopted brother Caiyan. While Hesina is trying to find her father’s killer and keep her treasonous actions and thoughts secret, strange things happen at Yan’s borders and it looks like the new queen will also have her hands full preventing a war.

I can’t really explain to you why this book worked so well or which aspects convinced me of its brilliance first, because it all kind of snuck up on me. I started as an interested yet somewhat distant reader, then a hundred pages later I wanted to strangle certain characters, I gaspedin shock at other characters’ betrayals, I marveled at the wonders this world holds, and I wanted Hesina so very, very badly to be okay! Let me just give that girl a hug. And I can’t put my finger on how or when that happened, but by the end, I was so damn into this story that I still can’t believe the author wasn’t immediately asked to write a sequel or twelve.

For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with how well Joan He juggled the various aspects of this book. I mentioned great world building before but I haven’t told you that most of it is worked organically into the plot. There are no expositions, no characters explaining to others what they should already know. The picture we have of Yan and its history simply grows clearer and clearer the more we read. It helps that every chapter begins with quotes by One of the Eleven and Two of the Eleven – two of the heroes who saved the kingdom and created a system for society that appears like a pretty solid democracy. I say “appeared” because we all know no utopia is actually a utopia and while Yan’s political system is mostly quite fair, it has its pitfalls.

“The masses may be misguided, but their hearts are true.”

Even without the added bonus of a rich history, Yan was such an intriguing place to discover. And since we see it through Hesina’s eyes, we also understand that everything is political. Whether it’s the people’s fear of and hatred for soothsayers or the way they strictly adhere to the rules set by the Eleven, I loved every aspect of it. Not because it’s necessarily a perfect, happy kingdom but because it felt so realistic! Humans can be shitty and full of prejudices but that doesn’t mean they are all bad people. Hesina learns this lesson over and over again as she navigates the court and has to make the most difficult decisions. She also has to learn that sometimes the ones you mistrust are actually on your side while a trusted friend may be working against you… I’m not saying that is the case here but, yeah, it totally is the case and you still won’t be able to guess who is who. That’s probably what made the many twists so much more painful.

I also enjoyed the writing style. I’m not sure if this is marketed as YA but I thought the style definitely had that quality where the text just seems to flow, letting you concentrate completely on the images in your mind. There is also a bit of romance, although I appreciated immensely that it’s never the focus – Hesina’s got much more important stuff to deal with – but it evolved throughout the story almost as a side note. And it felt all the more real and important for that. The same goes for the relationships between Hesina and her remaining family: her seemingly cold-hearted mother, her twin siblings, and her blood brother. Each of these characters is a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning and Hesina’s relationship to each of them grows. That is such a rare thing in any kind of book, but especially in YA, where side characters are often rather bland and the focus lies more on the protagonist and the love interest(s).

“What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good Kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.”

By the end of the book, Hesina has been through a cascade of ever more dangerous and harrowing situations, she has dealt with moral dilemmas, and she has to come to terms with the truth about her own beliefs and her country’s past. And while I got some satisfaction out of this story and it definitely has a finished story arc, quite a few questions remain unanswered and many problems unsolved. When I closed this book I let out a long breath and immediately googled when the sequel would come out. Alas, none is scheduled just yet. The author has plans to write one if the publishers deem the first book a big enough success. So I urge all of you to pick up this book and go on that emotional journey with Hesina because (a) it’s awesome and (b) I really need a second book!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Dealing With History: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes – The Deep

Usually, a book is what happens when a writer sits down and puts their ideas into words – and then publishes them. But sometimes, books have more interesting origins. In this case, the band clipping.’s Hugo-nominated work “The Deep” was the inspiration for Solomon’s novella and I have to say, it makes me want to read way more fiction based on music. And of course more books by Rivers Solomon.

THE DEEP
by Rivers Solomon
Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 166 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: “It was like dreaming,” said Yetu, throat raw.

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

This is another one of those hard reviews to write. On the one hand, the book synopsis tells you most of what happens within the covers of this book, but on the other hand, it doesn’t even get close to telling you what emotions this story will put you through. The premise is a great fantasy idea: When pregnant slave women were thrown (or jumped) from the ships transporting them, the babies they carried went through some kind of super-evolution and were born as water-dwelling mermaid-like creatures. These creatures then found others like themselves and formed a society. The wajinru, as they are called, don’t have great memories – but on purpose. They choose one person to be their historian, their memory-keeper, the one who remembers where they came from, who they are, why they are here in the deep darkness of the ocean.

Yetu was chosen as historian but to say the job overwhelms her is an understatement. She gets lost in the myriad memories stuck inside her head, she sometimes can’t distinguish reality and the present from what she remembers, from the past. The way Rivers Solomon described Yetu’s feelings was so amazing, I felt like I knew her after only a handful of pages. At the beginning of the book, we don’t even know what exactly those memories are (although we can surmise they are not pleasant, given the wajinru’s origins), but we feel Yetu’s pain nonetheless. When the annual ritual of sharing those memories with the rest of the wajinru arrives, Yetu makes a terrible decision. For a few moments, she is supposed to hand the memories over to the others, so they can remember who they are, and then she should take them back and store them within herself, so the others can go on with their lives. But Yetu isn’t sure she’ll survive another year, even another minute, carrying that weight alone. So she leaves…

And thus starts a journey of finding herself, of learning more about her past than she ever did before, of finding out that even painful memories are worth preserving. Yetu leaves the deep and goes to the surface where she meets some humans. If you think you have a Little Mermaid retelling on your hands, though, think again. Although Yetu does develop a sort of relationship with one of the humans, most of her time is spent thinking about her actions and her people whom she left below. She worries about going back, about staying, about what is right and wrong. The question of whether she should return even if the memories would destroy her is constantly on her mind and it was a strange pleasure to read.

This is a truly beautiful book. Not because the subject matter is beautiful – it’s not. In some chapters, we learn about the first wajinru, how they came to be, we see single memories of slave women, we see dark times and slightly better times. But Yetu’s journey – both physical and emotional – was just such a damn good story. Should she sacrifice her own sanity, her own health for the good of her people? Should one die so many can live? Or are there maybe other solutions to the wajinru’s problem? And is it even important to keep those memories if everyone is much happier when they forget? It’s a tale of identity, of belonging, of remembering where you came from even if it hurts. But it’s also the story of one individual who desperately wants to live and enjoy everything life has to offer. That includes maybe falling in love, learning to live with pain, choosing your own path. I can’t describe what goes on in The Deep in a better, more eloquent way. I can only urge you to pick up this book.

I’m pleased to say that the ending was a thing of utter beauty. I wasn’t sure until the very end whether this story could be resolved in a satisfying way because every choice Yetu took seemed like it had more bad sides than good ones. But Rivers Solomon definitely has a storytelling gift. They created a character that readers can identify with even if they have nothing in common with her. Then they put her through a harrowing story where, granted, not much happens in terms of plot but so much happens under the surface (pun intended) and they round it all up with an ending that made me feel warm and loved and like the part of something bigger. This is a book that wormed its way into my brain and that I’m still thinking about weeks after having finished it. After being so taken with this novella, I can’t wait to pick up Solomon’s full length novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

What adorable fun: Jessica Townsend – The Trials of Morrigan Crow

This book and its sequel appear to be all the rage among the BookTube community, which is how I found it. After many, many recommendations, I finally caved and got myself a copy, only to devour it within a matter of days. I get it now, guys. While I think the comparisons to a certain boy wizard aren’t appropriate, Morrigan Crow and the world of Nevermoore certainly have enough charm of their own. I will gladly continue reading this series and hope we’ll get many more adventures in this irrisistible world.

THE TRIALS OF MORRIGAN CROW
by Jessica Townsend

Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017
Ebook: 513 pages
Series: Nevermoor #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The journalists arrived before the coffin did.

A cursed girl escapes death and finds herself in a magical world – but is then tested beyond her wildest imagination
Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.
But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.
It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart – an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests – or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

I don’t read a lot of middle grade books because I’m just not deep enough into books for that age group to know what would be for me and what wouldn’t. But reading The Trials of Morrigan Crow reminded me why I absolutely love middle grade and why I should read way more of it. I believe the best kids’ books are those that offer you so much to discover, while following a maybe simple plot line on the surface. All the best stories hide depth under what first meets the eye and I cannot wait to see where Morrigan’s story goes next. But let’s start at the beginning.

Morrigan Crow is a Cursed Child. That means she will die on her eleventh birthday but before that horrible fate arrives, everything that goes wrong in her home state is her fault. Or so people say at least. Being cursed, she is considered bad luck. If there’s a car accident, it’s because Morrigan looked at the driver funny. If an elderly lady breaks her hip ice skating, it’s becaues Morrigan said the weather is nice… To sum it up: It’s no fun being Morrigan Crow, especially since her parents are just as annoyed by her existence as everyone else. Enter Jupiter North, a character whom I immediately liked. He whisks Morrigan away just before midnight on her eleventh birthday and helps her thus escape her prophecied death.
Now Morrigan lives in his hotel in the city of Nevermoor and, for the first time, learns what it’s like to belong somewhere. Although, if she doesn’t succeed in the four trials ahead of her to become a member of the Wundrous Society, then she’ll have to go back to her old home where death still awaits…

There was so much to love in this book! Morrigan is a lovable protagonist, Jupiter North is a slightly chaotic father figure, Morrigan makes some wonderful friends and I loved all of them dearly. Of course since she’s competing against other children in the aforementioned trials, there are also some characters who aren’t so nice. But what could have been a younger version of high school drama with the Queen B as the evil antagonist actually turned into a charming adventure. I won’t tell you anything about the actual trials because you should all have the pleasure of discovering them for yourselves. Let me just say that only one of them was somewhat predictable but still so much fun to read. And the other three were all brilliant, surprising, exciting and so original.

The world building was also spot on. There are still many, many questions I have about this magical world hidden within another magical world but Jessica Townsend gave us just enough to look forward to the next book but still be satisfied with what we got in this one. You see, the world seems to run on something called Wunder – electricity is Wunder, the trains run on Wunder, you get the point. Wunder is controlled by a large company owned by a very rich man and lately, weird things have been going on with Wunder…

This book is about many things, but most of all it is about found families. While much time is spent following Morrigan on her discovery of this magical new place Nevermoor, the character developments and relationships happen almost imperceptibly. The bright, wonderful world of Nevermoor with all its new rules and traditions was fun to read, but my heart grew warmer every time Morrigan made a friend or got a nice word out of the giant talking cat (yes, this book has a giant talking cat, do you really need to know more?).

It was also beautiful that – while Morrigan fully embraces her new home where she is finally loved for who she is, curse and all – she doesn’t just forget about her old family. Having grown up the way she did left its mark and it shows in the trials, it shows in the way she behaves, and she has to start learning from scratch that she is a valuable person who deserves to be loved! I have read some critique about this book having too much. Too much information, too many ideas, but I disagree! Sure, there are a lot of small asides about all the crazy stuff that goes on in Nevermoor but the plot is pretty straight forward. The extra ideas are what make this book so much fun for adults as well as children. Just like all the best middle grade books, this one can be read simply for plot – and the plot is super exciting – or, if you’re an older reader and expect a little more from your fiction, there are all the beautiful relationships, the character growth, and the world building.

I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this book. The pages turned themselves, I felt like a kid again, and I will probably pick up the next book very soon. The third book, Hollowpox, comes out in August 2020 and I already have it preordered. Give me all the Wunder!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A mini update and my current reads

Hey everyone! As I’m currently on holiday in a sunny place, this post is coming to you from my phone. So don’t expect any shiny pictures or fancy formatting. I just had to let you know about my current reads and the fantastic books I’ve read so far.

Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

Boy, did this book surprise me! It started out as a nice fantasy story in an alternate China (with magic, but outlawed magic!) and then got better and better without me even noticing. By the end, I was a complete mess!! So many twists, such brilliant characters, great ideas and cool worlbuilding…. this is now one of my favourite books published in 2019.

Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars

This sci-fi retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion felt a little strange at first. The futuristic world felt a bit flimsy but that got better quickly. And the romance was absolutely amazing! I felt for these characters immediately and wanted nothing more than to push them together and see them happy.

Marlon James- Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I just started this so I can’t say too much about it but I really like the style. It6very different from most books I’ve read before but I like how this fantasy world incorporates African myths rather than the usual fantasy fare. Also, I am super intrigued by the narrator and I want to explore the entire gorgeous map.

So my holiday is going very well. We’re doing a lot of exploring and sightseeing but I have plenty of time to read as well. I hope you’re all doing well and may your current reads be as fantastic as mine. 😁

Middle Book Syndrome: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Mirrorstrike

If you’ve read my review of Sriduangkaew’s beautiful novella Winterglassyou know that my one gripe with it was that it felt so unfinished, like the beginning of a bigger story. Well, apparently the author felt the same because here is the sequel in what will probably be a trilogy.
There are some spoilers below for the first book in the series, although I think Winterglass is just as enjoyable to read even if you already know what happens.

MIRRORSTRIKE
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: 2019
Paperback: 160 pages
Series: Her Pitiless Command #2
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: In the house of the Winter Queen, even time itself slows.

With her mother’s blood fresh on her hands, Nuawa has learned that to overthrow the tyrant Winter Queen she must be as exact as a bullet… and as pitiless.
In the greatest city of winter, a revolt has broken out and General Lussadh has arrived to suppress it. She’s no stranger to treason, for this city is her home where she slaughtered her own family for the Winter Queen.
Accompanying the general to prove her loyalty, Nuawa confronts a rebel who once worked to end the queen’s reign and who now holds secrets that will cement the queen’s rule. But this is not Nuawa’s only predicament. A relentless killer has emerged and he means to hunt down anyone who holds in their heart a shard of the queen’s mirror. Like the general. Like Nuawa herself.
On these fields of tumult and shattered history, the queen’s purposes will at last be revealed, and both Lussadh and Nuawa tested to their limits.
One to wake. Two to bind. These are the laws that govern those of the glass.

There are few retellings that gripped me as much as Winterglass did. With striking language, brilliant characters, original world building and the beginning of a kick-ass plot, it had everything I wanted from a retelling. Some of the things I loved so much are continued in this sequel, although I have to say it could have used some more editing. The plot meanders and it felt like it couldn’t quite decide which direction it wanted to go. Are we still in a science-fantasy retelling? Because we drift off into very cheesy romance territory at times… but let’s start at the beginning.

Nuawa is now a lieutenant in the Winter Queen’s service and she’s also started a relationship with general Lussadh, that most intriguing of characters. Unfortunately, the characters and world building really stalled in this book, or in some cases was even less present than before. Nuawa’s goal is still destroying the Winter Queen, working closely by her enemy to discover weaknesses and exploit them. So far, so exciting. But instead of the active part she played in the first book, in this one she mostly just reacts to other people’s actions. She is still kick-ass and her character grows throughout the story, but she has much less agency than she did in Winterglass and the book was just a little less good for it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the first book was the world building. Set in an alternate Thailand (or at least South East Asia), winter rules supreme since the Winter Queen conquered the land. With people’s ghosts used for power, magical ghost kilns which extract those ghosts from living people, science-fantasy style chiurgeons who can perform unbelievable feats, and magic weapons that can kill someone by hurting their shadow, there was so much to discover, so many little things that I wanted to learn more about. Sadly, there is almost nothing new in this book about ghosts or the kilns or even how this conquered world even really works, government-wise. Most of those ideas are treated as throw-away lines here and there. It felt like the author had lost all drive to establish her world further, or maybe she hadn’t thought her ideas through to the end. What was imaginative in the first book felt like window dressing in this one.
The one thing Sriduangkaew does give her readers is more information about the Winter Queen’s origins and the power of those glass fragments that created her glass bearers. While interesting, that didn’t nearly reach the level of world building and lore from the first book.

As I already mentioned, the characters also seem to have lost a lot of their strength. I don’t mean physical strength – both Nuawa and Lussadh are still amazing fighters – but I’m talking more about their agency and personalities. Nuawa has done some crazy stuff in the first book in order to get close to the Winter Queen and achieve her goal of avenging her country and her family. Lussadh has equally been through horrible things, but while in Winterglass she was surrounded by a mesmerizing aura of mystery, all of that was gone in Mirrorstrike. It’s nice to see those two as a happy-ish couple but they exchanged some serioiusly cheesy lines and felt like cliché people from a bad romance story.
Nuawa does go through an interesting development, although it is lessened by the fact that it’s so blatantly stated instead of being shown subtly. She is warned that being a glass-bearer will turn her more and more to the Queen’s side, make her willing to help the Queen stay in power, and Nuawa feels that pull and has to fight it. But this also felt like something that came and went, being very visible in one chapter only to be almost forgotten in the next. Nuawa was such a standout strong character and now she felt kind of wishy-washy. Sometimes she feels how the Queen draws her in, then that’s all forgotten and she pursues her goal single-mindedly again.

As for the plot… that was the weakest part of the book. A lot of little things happen, only some of which pushed the plot forward, and most of which felt like distjointed scenes put together somehow. There is a plot line about traitors to the Queen plus some assassination attempts – and that just fizzles out. There is a new character who has connections to Nuawa’s past, and while I think that story will continue in the next book, it was also left hanging in this one, rather unceremoniously. What bothered me the most was that it felt like I could see through the writing. It felt like the author wanted to get a piece of information across – like the Winter Queen’s weakness or a hidden truth about Nuawa’s mothers – and the scene did just that, but nothing more. And I know the author can do more, she proved that over and over in the first book. I actually re-read Winterglass before starting this one and even on the second reading, that book was just amazing. Mirrorstrike felt like a bit of a mess in comparison, with no red thread to follow, random things happening here and there, but very little that connects it to the bigger plot hinted at in Winterglass.

But the one thing that still stands out and that made this still a very good book is the language. You kind of have to like that particular style, but if you do, you’ll love it. It’s lyrical, it has big words, and it flows beautifully. I did think that Sriduangkaew overdid it a few times in this book, maybe trying a tad too hard to sound poetic and ending up with something more resembling ridiculous, mostly during the romantic exchanges between Nuawa and Lussadh. But for most of the book, the prose is gorgeous and paints vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. And it kept me reading even though the somewhat disjointed plot kept confusing me.

This is definitely a case of middle book syndrome but at 160 pages, that is forgivable. The ending delivered a nice little twist (which made sure I’d want to read the next book) and, sadly, another super cheesy moment. But I’ll forgive that because I really finally want to know how the story ends and whether the Winter Queen can be vanquished. Now all I have to do is wait for the third book…

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

 

Alien Politics and Space Travel: Brandon Sanderson – Starsight

I really loved Skyward – the YA sci-fi adventure I wouldn’t have expected from Brandon Sanderson – so naturally I didn’t wait long to pick up the sequel. After the revelations at the end of the first book I didn’t think Sanderson could deliver another surprise of such proportions. Silly me… it’s like I haven’t learned anything at all from reading all his epic fantasies. There are always more secrets to discover and more twists I didn’t see coming. This review will be spoiler-free, however there will be HUGE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SKYWARD BELOW!

STARSIGHT
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2019
Hardcover: 468 pages
Series: Skyward #2
My rating: 8/10

First line: I slammed on my overburn and boosted my starship through the middle of a chaotic mess of destructor blasts and explosions. 

Starsight picks up about six months after the end of Skyward and Spensa and her friends have established themselves as competent pilots in the DDF. Spensa is still her daring, ambitious old self although her mission has changed. The things she found out at the end of the first book lead humanity on a whole new path to freedom from their prison on Detritus. All they want is to live in peace and prosperity, on a planet where aliens don’t constantly attack them. But in order to travel through space, humans have to find – or steal – the necessary technology. Or Spensa has to figure out her abilities and use them for the good of her people…

Starsight was surprising, not only because it has the usual Sandersonesque mind-blowing twists, but at first because the setting and plot were totally different from what I expected. Spensa doesn’t spend much time on Detritus (or in its orbit) but takes an opportunity that arises to travel to the aliens who keep humanity imprisoned and try to steal FTL technology right out from under their noses. Where the first book was about Spensa becoming a pilot, this one is her trying to be a spy… sometimes more and sometimes less successfully. She does have M-Bot with her, however, who not only guarantees great dialogue and some truly funny scenes but who also is more a friend than a sentient machine by now. I really found myself caring deeply about that AI and not just because he’s trying to figure out himself whether he could be called “alive”.
The question of what makes a living being arises on many occasions and M-Bot’s musings on the topic range from ridiculous or funny to really deep and thought-provoking.

When Spensa arrives on the titular station Starsight, she is not only confronted with the problem of how to infiltrate her enemies’ home and steal secret technology from them, but she also meets several different alien species in the shape of people who may even become friends. I was very impressed with all the new side characters introduced in this book. They are each distinct, they have their own personality and mannerisms, and their alienness – although mostly not very striking – does come through. Morriumur the dione and Hesho the kitsen especially grew dear to me, but even the characters I didn’t like were well-written. The difference between how the Superiority live and how Spensa grew up was particularly stark – and the rules for letting “lesser species” becoce part of the Superiorty were… interesting to learn.

The plot, now that I think about it, isn’t actually all that original or all that different from the first book. Spensa is once again put into a cockpit and has to train with other people to defeat an overwhelming enemy. However, the enemy has changed, as have her wingmates. And there’s also the fact that she’s pretending to be someone else in order to steal from the people she’s slowly getting to know… That’s the reason I really liked this book so much, I think. Spensa’s realization that the aliens she’s been fighting on her home planet are also just people – some good, some bad, but each with a life of their own, a family, maybe a pet – happens gradually, and then all at once. It shows not only that the world is bigger than Spensa (and we readers) originally thought but it also makes Spensa grow so much as a person. I was super proud of her!

M-Bot also put me through all the emotions in this book. There are certain things he can’t talk about or do to himself (changing certain parts his code, copying himself, etc.) but he keeps wondering if he could be called alive and what even makes someone alive. I won’t spoil anything but M-Bot is in danger on occasion – after all, he is Spensa’s ship – and I was shocked how worried I got about that space ship. Even if at the end of the series it turns out M-Bot is nothing special, just a very complex AI who’s been programmed with sarcasm, I will love him to bits until the very end!

There was one twist that I saw coming just a bit more than the others Sanderson has in store for us. Let’s just say the Superiority isn’t all that subtle with its politics or its ways to control other species. And maybe the whole “writing for a YA audience” thing just got out of hand for a moment.  Figuring out one plot point  a few moments before the protagonist did made no dent in my reading enjoyment, but I was surprised that the answer to this burning question was something I could actually come up with myself. But worry not: There are more revelations and more twists and more hints about things to come, none of which I expected. Just like after finishing Skyward, I want the next book RIGHT NOW and I don’t know if I can wait two years to find out how the story ends.

If you liked the first book, you will like this one as well. Just be warned that you don’t get to see much of the side characters from Skyward. But I believe the third book will put together all the characters from the first two books in one epic finale and, man, I cannot wait!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Sanderson does YA Sci-Fi: Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I actually read this book right after it came out in December 2018 but last week I saw I had never reviewed it. As I have turned into quite a Sanderson fangirl, this situation could not remain! The man is known for writing excellent epic fantasy with brilliant twists, so this foray into both science fiction and YA was mostly new. I had read Steelheart – the first in Sanderson’s other YA series – and liked it okay but not enough to continue the series. So to sum it all up: I was very curious to see what Skyward held in store and I was not disappointed.

SKYWARD
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2018
Hardback: 513 pages
Series: Skyward #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Only fools climbed to the surface.

Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.

Young Spensa dreams of nothing more than to become a figher pilot like her father and defend her planet against the attacking alien Krell. Even though her father – and his death – brought shame on the entire family. Because the ace pilot did something so horrible that it cannot be forgiven – he was branded a coward – Spensa’s family has been shunned and Spensa’s chances of even getting into flight school are pretty much nonexistant. Jobs are assigned according to young people’s strengths but pilots tend to come from families who already have established pilots. Needless to say, cowards’ daughters don’t count…

There’s so much to love about this book, starting with the writing style. Sanderson is always immensely readable but when he does YA, he becomes even more so. The pages just fly, you forget the time only to realize it’s three in the morning and you’ve finished most of the book without noticing. It’s truly engaging and Spensa being a highly likable narrator only adds to that. Spensa is dedicated from the get go and she never stops following her dreams, even though many, many rocks are put in her way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell  you that she does get into flight school (although not easily) because the meat of the novel is how Spensa fares there.

I loved that although she is a gifted young woman, things don’t just fall into her lap. She may be a natural in the cockpit but that doesn’t mean she is immediately able to fly. In fact, Spensa struggles as much as her classmates, if not more, to just get a handle on her ship. The first lessons were filled with hilarious scenes of Spensa and her classmates failing to control their ships. And that’s without having to deal with all the rivalry, people looking down on her for having a coward father, or generally thinking she and her entire family are worthless. Learning to fly takes as much from Spensa as trying to make friends and prove herself worthy of being a pilot. Of course, she also doesn’t believe her father really was a coward and wants to find out what really happened. I can promise you there will be a secret or two waiting in store but probably not what you think.

This being a Sanderson book, you can also expect fantastic worldbuilding. The story is set on the planet Detritus where most people live underground because the surface is frequently attacked by the Krell. That’s why fighter pilots are so important as they are the only defense humans have against this alien threat. I loved how the world was set up, how the differences between the rich and the poor are made clear (it’s not pretty, let me tell you that) and how these people’s entire lives are based around the fact that you can’t see the sky. Questions of class differences are raised on many occasions and since we follow the underdog Spensa, it’s easy to side with those less fortunate. However, even the spoiled rich kids aren’t one-dimensional. Sure, they may have had an easier life than Spensa but that doesn’t mean  they don’t suffer from their own problems and challenges – they are simply different ones.
Another prominent theme is the question of what makes a hero. Spensa has heard many tales from heroes of Earth but she herself is still trying to figure out who she is, how she can be a hero, and why her dad seemingly wasn’t the hero she had always thought. The question isn’t discussed in detail (maybe because Sanderson thought it would be too much for a YA audience?) but I liked that it’s a constant that keeps coming up and makes you think about heroism yourself.

Now I’ve already said a whole lot and I haven’t even mentioned the sentient spaceship M-Bot, or Spensa’s snail friend Doomslug. It does take a while until Spensa finds that spaceship but trust me when I tell you it’s one of the highlights of this novel. Spensa finding an abandoned spaceship is one thing (and a pretty cool one at that) but said space ship literally having a mind of its own makes for some hilarious dialogue and wonderful dynamics between these characters.
The side characters were also interesting although they didn’t stick in my mind as much as Spensa or M-Bot did. And that’s maybe the one reason why I’m not rating this book higher. Don’t get me wrong, I had so much fun reading this but unlike other books by this author, the details didn’t really stay with me all that long. I had to look up character names so I could write this review (which isn’t a bad thing, especially when you read a lot of books, but I never for a second forgot any of the character names from Sanderson’s other books). The same goes for certain plot elements. I remember loving every page and enjoying myself thoroughly while reading it, but by now the details are a little hazy. However, that’s about the only negative thing I can say about this.

This wouldn’t be a Sanderson novel if it didn’t have a whole lot of unexpected twists in store. And it’s the same pattern as always – I think I see something coming or at least I think I have a vague idea what the twist will be about, and then it turns out I’m completely wrong and Sanderson comes up with something I totally did not expect and which knocks me off my socks. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter because you should all have as much fun as I did discovering what’s really going on and having your expectations turned upside down. It made me incredibly excited about the second novel Starsight (which I’m currently reading*) and I can’t wait to see what revelations are waiting for me this time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Brandon Sanderson, it’s that I can trust him completely to take me on a wild ride and always deliver a fantastic ending.

*Sanderson does a brilliant job of reminding his readers what happened in Skyward in the first few chapters of the second book. So if you also read this a while ago and are worried that you don’t remember enough details or characters, don’t worry. Just dive into the sequel, it will all come back. 😉

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

P.S.: This is one of the cases where I have a massive cover preference for the UK editions. I really don’t like the US covers for this series. I think the illustrations are beautiful, but they just don’t fit the novel very well, in my opinion.

 

Twisty, Creepy, Wonderful: T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones

I love T. Kingfisher’s books so much. When I saw that she had published a horror novel – quite the departure from her fairy tale retellings I’d read so far  – I knew I had to try it. I just couldn’t believe that one author can write (and draw!) graphic novels, write fantastic retellings, and manage a good horror story as well. I’m very glad I was wrong because T. Kingfisher can do it all.

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though Iknow you won’t believe me.

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.
When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?
Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.
Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.
From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher.

When Mouse’s father calls her and asks if she can clean out her late grandmother’s house so they can sell it, of course she agrees. Because that’s what you do for family. But she’s not happy about the task, especially once she finds out that her grandmother (who hated everyone, most of all her own kin) was a hoarder. From stacks of old newspaper over a creepy doll collection, there is a lot to clean up and throw away. At least Mouse has her beloved, if not very smart, coonhound Bongo with her.

Mouse’s first person narration is exactly what I expected from a Kingfisher book. She is practical, relatable, and good-hearted. And most importantly of all – she’s not an idiot. Things may start out harmless enough but Mouse soon realizes that Something Is Wrong and that she may have entered horror movie territory. And she reacts sensibly. She’s neither too trusting, nor too suspicious. That’s why I love T. Kingfisher’s protagonists so much. They are smart enough to see what kind of story they have stumbled into and they try to figure things out but they don’t do idiotic shit like “let’s split up” or fall for obvious tricks.

The horror elements of this novel work on several different layers. There is the base line horror of Mouse being stuck in her grandmother’s creepy house, full of old stuff, porcelain dolls, and – more interestingly – her stepgrandfather’s journal. Now Mouse is well aware that he had dementia and his scribbles should not necessarily be taken at face value, but the weird ramblings in that journal added another layer of creeping suspense to the novel. And then there are the things in the woods… which is all I’m going to say about that because, come on, you should be as creeped out as I was!

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

For me, a good horror story hinges on a handful of things. Number one is the protagonists’ behaviour. I already said Mouse is a fantastic heroine whose actions are always understandable and sensible. Number two is a slow build-up of fear or suspense. The writing style of The Twisted Ones is rather humorous because that’s just how Mouse deals with things, so it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. But maybe Mouse’s ability to laugh at herself or see the bizarre things around her through a funny lens only increased the contrast to the horrible things that happen in this story. To give you a taste of how well it worked, let me tell you a little story.
I was going to bed after reading a few chapters of The Twisted Ones and when I stood in the doorframe of my bedroom, I saw something! It was tall and had a super round “head” with weird things growing out of it. For a fraction of a second, my heart stopped, I drew in a breath to scream, and then I remembered that it was my lampshade… I switched on the light and – surprise – my bedroom was my bedroom. There was no scary creature standing in the middle of it and I had a good laugh at myself. So although not every frightening scene in this book actually scared me while reading, apparently the book did push some of my buttons and got me on edge. Because, let’s face it, I’m a grown woman who got scared by her own furniture…

Without saying anything about the big threat in this story, I’d still like to mention how well I thought it was built up. I went into this with my horror movie glasses on – so I suspected every single character of being secretly in league with Evil, I expected every room Mouse explored in that old house to hold terrible secrets, and I tried guessing what her stepgrandfather’s diary would reveal and how Mouse would get out of it all alive. I was wrong on most counts, but  I loved how T. Kingfisher toyed with those expectations, clearly playing up some elements to make us think we know where the story is going even though she had completely different plans. Until the end, it was never quite clear which strange detail would turn out to be a real clue to finding out the truth. Once the antagonist (if you want to call it that) is revealed, the creep factor went down a lot – but that’s always the case with me. As long as I don’t know what’s going on, as long as I have no idea what the heroine’s fighting, I am terrified. Once it’s clear what we’re up against and maybe I even have an idea about how to fight it, it becomes more of an adventure story to me than a horror one.

If I had read older science fiction and fantasy more widely, I might have recognized certain aspects of this story. Kingfisher reveals her inspiration for this novel in the author’s note at the end. Having read it, I think I may even be glad I didn’t know the inspiration for The Twisted Ones because it may have made this book less exciting. But I won’t deny that I am now very interested in checking out the source material, if you want to call it that. I love when stories inspire other stories, especially if they turn out as great as this one.

I also quite liked the ending, even though it leaves quite a few questions unanswered. But it really fit with the narrative as a whole. I don’t think revealing all the secrets and answering all the questions would have been a good choice for this story. If there’s magic involved, it’s fine to keep things vague. The whole point of magic is, in my opinion, that it can’t be explained nor fully understood. The Twisted Ones wraps up in a believable and satisfying manner and it also lets us know that certain horrors never leave you, even if you’ve survived terrible things.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Reading The Witcher: Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! The last book I read in 2019 has now turned into my first review of 2020 and I am so glad that I can start the year with a good one. With the Witcher now on Netflix (haven’t watched it yet but I’m very excited), it was about time I checked out one of those books. I think I may read one more of them before I dive into the TV show because this collection really got me hooked.

THE LAST WISH
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by: Orbit, 1993
Ebook: 353 pages
Series: The Witcher #0.5
My rating: 7/10

First line: She came to him towards morning.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.
A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny.

I had known about the Witcher for many years and I watched my boyfriend play some of the game (The Witcher III) but I had always planned to read the books before I checked out the games for myself. Now there’s a Netflix show with none other than Henry Cavill (I like him 🙂 ) and that gave me the needed push to finally check out the first – in publication order – of the books. People have warned me that this is more of a short story collection than a novel and that is true but to me it never felt like a collection but rather like looking into Geralt of Rivia’s life at different points in time.

We first meet Geralt just before one of his adventures. As a witcher, his job is to find a monster who plague people, get hired to defeat that monster, and then get the  job done, get paid, and move on to the next village. That doesn’t, however, always mean killing a monster. Sometimes it first means figuring out who the monster even is – and having horns or vampire teeth isn’t always the necessary indicator. From that very first story it becomes clear that Geralt follows  his own code, that his ethics aren’t always the same as other people’s. And although he’s a quiet, thoughtful kind of man who doesn’t speak much (though he is an excellent grunter), I found myself quite liking him right from the start. Between the individual stories, a sort of frame story is set up that we follow as a red thread. I didn’t really find this necessary but it added a nice time layer to the story collection.

There were several things that surprised me. The first one was how dialogue-heavy the book was, especially during the first few stories. There is very little description and Geralt learns most details about his job or the monster-in-question through some other character telling him. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it sure made for a quick read. The other surprise was how heavily fairy tales feature in these stories. I had known before starting this book that it uses fairy tale tropes and sometimes even retells fairy tales, but to meet obvious versions of Beauty and the Beast or Snow White – although with a twist – was still a happy surprise for me. I loved how Sapkowski uses the tropes we all know from these tales and turns them upside down. Suddenly, you get a beast who’s not all that unhappy with his beastly form. And Snow White turned a little bloodthirsty after being almost killed for jealousy… there are more twists to discover that I won’t tell you here, but I was very happy with the direction these stories took.

As for recurring characters, there are few. Dandilion the bard follows along with Geralt on a couple of adventures and Yennefer – a well-known character to people  who played the Witcher games – is mentioned several times. I was super excited to get a story where Geralt and Yennefer met for the first time because although I don’t know how, I have gathered that she will be important later. Despite most characters only being there for one story, and considering the lack  of vivid descriptions, I find it all the more impressive that the world feels like a proper world. I have no idea of the geography or who rules what part of the land but every place Geralt visits feels lived in and believable.

The writing style is the one thing I’m conflicted about. I don’t know how much is due to the translation, how much would have been the same in the original Polish, but even though there wasn’t much description, I found it slightly weird how women were described. Reading about any of the women in these stories gave me major flashbacks to older fantasy books I used to read. Although there aren’t explicit descriptions of boobs, a woman’s body shape  is almost always remarked upon in some way, as is her beauty (or lack thereof). That doesn’t mean that women are reduced to their looks as there are quite a few powerful female characters here, and some of them are beautifully complex in their motives and actions. But I did notice that their bodiees were commented on quite frequently, especially compared to the male characters.

For me, this was an excellent book to end the year with. It wasn’t groundbreaking or particularly beautifully written, but it was highly entertaining, it surprised me with its twists, I really loved Geralt as a character and I will read another Witcher book very soon! If you want something fun that’s a quick read, that uses fairy tale roots to tell a whole new story, then pick this up. It also made me even more excited for the Netflix show because, even after reading just this one book, I feel like I know Geralt and I want to see how Henry Cavill plays this role. So yes, my first review of 2020 is definitely a recommendation.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good