Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag!

This tag has been floating around the internet for about a week now and although nobody has tagged me (so far), I really want to join in the fun. I love the idea, I love the questions, and it’s always nice to check in on one’s own reading. After all, the year is already halfway over, so priorities should be made about what to read next.

❥ Reading Challenges 2019

Goodreads Reading Challenge: 45/60

I’m doing surprisingly well on my Goodreads challenge. I used to read 100 books a year with no problem, but the last two years, that seemed like an impossible task. But life changes, things quiet down, and I managed to find more reading time. I have no doubt I’m going to smash my Goodreads goal this year. Maybe I’ll even get close to 100 books. That would be amazing!

2019 Retellings Challenge: 9/10

Tracy’s Retellings Challenge still makes me as excited as I was at the beginning of the year. I have discovered wonderful new books, some I didn’t like so much, but the challenge definitely pushes me to finally pick up books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Or it makes me go out of my comfort zone and try something new. Either way, it has been very rewarding so far. My plan is to fill the bingo card until the end of the year. And if Tracy doesn’t create a follow-up challenge for next year, I’ll start the whole bingo card over again. Because it’s that much fun!

❥ Best Book You’ve Read so Far in 2019

This is so tough! I can’t go with just one, so here’s my favorite reads of the year so far with a link to my review in case you want to learn more about these amazeballs books.

❥ Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2019

Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising
I didn’t believe any author could possibly write a worthy and satisfying ending to such a great series but Leigh Bardugo did and I cried and it made me feel all the things and now she’s one of my favorite authors.

Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Warrior
I haven’t reviewed this book yet because there is so much to say about it that I don’t know where to start. It had all the magic and atmosphere from the first book but bigger, better, and more terrifying.

❥ New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

SO! MANY!!!

  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Ann Leckie – The Raven Tower
  • Chuck Wendig – Wanderers
  • Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
  • Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  • Holly Black – The Wicked King
  • S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

❥ Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

  • Brandon Sanderson – Starsight
  • Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing
  • Maggie Stiefvater – Call Down the Hawk
  • T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones
  • Laura Ruby – Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  • Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth
  • Erin A. Craig – House of Salt and Sorrows
  • C. S. E. Cooney – Desdemona and the Deep

❥ Biggest disappointment

Without a doubt, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natahsa Ngan and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. I didn’t write a review for McGuire’s third Wayward Children novella because it made me so angry. There is very little plot (as usual) and there is only one interesting side character. The protagonist was the most self-pitying, hypocritical, whiny moron I have ever read about. The thing is, she would say I dislike her because she’s fat (but I really, really don’t care how big her thighs are) because that’s all she does. Suspect people of disliking her for being fat when everybody is actually very nice to her. But because she has a problem with her own size, she assumes everyone else does too. I just can’t root for a character who constantly puts herself in a victim role, imagining and inventing reasons why she’s supposedly treated unfairly when SHE OBVIOUSLY ISN’T AND NOBODY CARES IF SHE’S FAT. Whew. So yeah… I liked the beginning of that story but the protagonist made it unbearable. I’m surprised my eyes didn’t get stuck from how much I rolled them while reading this.

❥ Biggest surprise

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I had read two of Kowal’s fantasy books (Jane Austen with magic is the elevator pitch) and while they featured great ideas, they were both quite boring. That series lacked all excitement and the style is painfully technical. Like, the words are all in the correct place and I can see what the author is trying to do, but there’s no emotion there.
All the more surprise when Kowal’s alternate history/science fiction novel hooked me from the first page and didn’t let up until the end. Although this too is a quiet sort of book, especially for a sci fi novel, there was so much to love about it.

❥ Favourite new author (Debut or new to you)

  • S. A. Chakraborty
  • G. Willow Wilson
  • Sarah Gailey

Each of these women impressed me with only one of their novels. I had technically read G. Willow Wilson’s Miss Marvel before, but this was my first novel by her.
S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass was magical and lush and filled with complex politics.
G. Willow Wilson convinced me with her new novel The Bird King, which was full of atmosphere and mythology and very, very human characters.
And Sarah Gailey just threw the perfect debut novel out there with Magic for Liars. I loved the characters, I was completely in for the murder mystery, and I can’t wait to read more by her.

❥ Newest fictional crush

I’m a little too old for fictional crushes but if you made me pick one that I think my younger self would have loved, I’d go with Sean Kendrick from The Scorpio Races.

❥ Newest favourite character

Hm… I already mentioned Sean Kendrick, so I’ll go with a different one here. Although the book itself wasn’t perfect, A Curse so Dark and Lonely featured one of the best, proactive heroines I’ve encountered in YA in a long time. Harper Lacy may have cerebral palsy, but she doesn’t let that hold her back from saving kingdoms, breaking curses, or generally taking matters into her own hands. She doesn’t wait to be saved, she gets up and saves herself!

❥ Book that made you cry

The ending of the Grisha Trilogy was just too well done not to cry a little. But Stiefvater really wrecked me with The Scorpio Races. I was close to tears for the entire last third of the book. But you know when I really did start crying? On the very last page, reading that very last line! I don’t think that’s ever happened to me and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an ending this perfect.

❥ Book that made you happy

It’s a little concerning how long I had to think about this. But while I’ve read a lot of depressing, dark, sad books this year, there were some that ended up making me glow with joy.

  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • L. M. Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables

Circe may have started out depressing, what with the titular Circe being unloved and unwanted most of the time. But as she grows as a character and as her world changes and new people enter into it, her story becomes more joyful. By the end, I caught myself smiling more and more often.
I also finally read Anne of Green Gables after watching the first episode of its adaptation on Netflix. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if Anne’s optimistic outlook and pure joy for life doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

❥ Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

I have bought some seriously pretty books this year!

  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

❥ Books you need to read by the end of the year

Well, there’s a lot of those. But because endless lists are no fun for anyone, I’m going to narrow it down to my top 15 books that I absolutely need to read before the year is over.

  • Joanne M. Harris – The Gospel of Loki
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Call
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
  • Garth Nix – Frogkisser
  • Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns
  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Karen Lord – Unraveling
  • Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant

I’m not going to tag anyone specifically because I know many, many people have done it already. If you want to join in and do this tag, consider yourselves tagged and maybe leave me a link to your post. I love reading other people’s freak out tag answers and discovering even more books I have to read. 🙂

2019 Retellings Challenge – Second Quarter Update

Another quarter year has gone by and, like every year, I wonder how it happened so fast. Summer is here, I already went on holiday in lovely Tuscany, and of course I spent many days reading on the beach. The Hugo finalists have taken much of my reading time, so I haven’t read as many retellins as I would have liked, but I am still excited for this challenge (visit Tracy at cornerfolds for more info) and I plan to finish the entire bingo card this year.

What I’ve Read

For “Middle-Eastern Myth” on the bingo card, I finally read S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and I loved it. The setting and characters were wonderful, especially the complex political intricacies that Nahri and the readers have to learn about. I loved that there is so much more going on than first appears. Also, I have a super soft spot for Dara.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never was a group read and while I thought it was well done, I wasn’t exactly blown away. A very slow, character-focused book that retells Hook’s side of Peter Pan’s story, it takes a rapid turn at the end, with characters changing their entire personality in a matter of seconds, just for the sake of a dramatic ending. I liked parts of, but very much disliked others, so all things considered, it was okay, but not great.

I fully expected to love Circe by Madeline Miller and I was not disappointed. While it took me a while to warm to Circe herself, once she grew up a bit and I liked her, I was all aflame for her story. You meet many well-known characters from Greek myths and you especially get to see the women’s stories in a different light. Although quite different from The Song of Achilles, this was another excellent retelling of a Greek myth!

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales just fell into my hands one day at the book shop. This gorgeous looking little book is filled with poetry, short stories, and illustrations, all based on fairy tales. As with any collections, there were stories I liked better than others. But it bothered me how very obvious and on the nose the author was with her message. I fully support the message that you should love yourself the way you are, that women shouldn’t be princesses waiting to be saved by a strong prince, the message of empowerment and female friendship – it’s all there and it’s all things I totally love and want to see more of in fiction. But the execution felt like someone preaching with a raised finger and I really don’t enjoy being preached to. So this was also only a good read, not a great one.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
    June’s group read on Goodreads and a book I’ve been meaning to read forever! I’m a quarter of the way in and I absolutely love it.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
    I adore Oyeyemi’s style and my favorite book of hers was another retelling (Boy, Snow, Bird), so I’m very excited for this new one.
  • Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
    I hope this book wins the poll for July group read but if it doesn’t, I’ll probably read it anyway.
  • Ellen Datlow (ed.) – Mad Hatters and March Hares
    For the Wonderland bingo square, I might just go with this anthology. It features some of my favorite authors and short stories are usually quick reads. Even if there are a lot of them.

General Thoughts

By now, it’s become a little harder finding books to fit on the bingo card. For example, I already read my Middle-Eastern myth book (The City of Brass), so I’m lucky the group read, The Golem and the Jinni, also fits into the “award-winning” square.
This quarter, my reading has really been focused more on the Hugo Awards than this challenge. Once Hugo voting is over (by the end of July), I can put my attention back to this challenge and also finally reading some of the new releases from 2019 which I’ve been buying. I swear those books look at me sadly just to make me feel guilty that I haven’t picked them up yet!

But I’m still enjoying this challenge and the more I read, the more I appreciate Tracy’s reading prompts. Some of them are vague enough that you can read many things (like the “Brothers Grimm” prompt) and some are more specific and make you go hunt for books which you may otherwise not have read, especially if you’ve already read the most obvious choice (“a retelling set in space” –> Marissa Meyer’s Cinder). The Goodreads group reads also push books onto me which I either wouldn’t have read or which I’ve been putting off for way too long. So I’m still very happy with the challenge and with my progress. I expect to catch up much more quickly once I’m done with the Hugo Award nominated books and stories.

Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Just like the short story category, the nominees for Best Novelette are almost universally excellent. Again, there was only one story that didn’t resonate with me at all, but I enjoyed the other five. Some more than others, with two that clearly stood out to me.

The nominees for Best Novelette

  1. Brooke Bolander – The Only Harmless Great Thing
  2. Daryl Gregory – Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
  3. Zen Cho – If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
  4. Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
  5. Naomi Kritzer – The Thing About Ghost Stories
  6. Simone Heller – When We Were Starless

It was a close call to pick Brooke Bolander‘s story for my first place because my top three are all wonderful, ambitious pieces of fiction. What took The Only Harmless Great Thing over the top for me was its basis in reality. It’s the story of one of the Radium Girls, women hired to paint all sorts of equipment so it would glow in the dark. The paint they used – and the fact that they had to lick their brushes to keep them nice and sharp – caused severe physical damage (and I mean gruesome stuff!)  and a very early death. Bolander adds elephants as characters who come with their own mythology and gave the whole story a lovely fantasy vibe. As tough as it was to read, this was my favorite story of the bunch.

Daryl Gregory follows closely with his tale of alien seeds crashing to Earth, messing up the planet with new and unusual plant life. It’s both an intimate tale, following one character as they grow up, have children and grandchildren of their own, but also tells the broader story of the alien plants. I loved everything about this story, the narrative voice, the pacing, the plot, and most of all the characters.

I had read some of Zen Cho‘s fiction before, so I knew I was in for something good. Her story about an imugi trying to ascent to heaven to become a proper dragon, was at the same time tragic and funny. Waiting a thousand years for even a chance is already a sign of great patience. But when the protagonist imugi fails – and not once, but many times – even they have trouble keeping up hope. It takes trying out a different life for them to find the will to keep going, and this is that story.

Tina Connolly‘s story is what it says in the title. A banquet of temporal confections. A baker who can infuse his confections with memories serves a banquet of them to the evil Duke. While there are lovely descriptions in this story, both of food and the memories it evokes, I found this story to be too predictable and a little bit too safe to make one of my top spots. The story unfolds with each course, but you can see from very early on where it is going. So the ending, while technically satisfying, left me thinking: so that was it?

Another story that gives you exactly what you’d expect was Naomi Kritzer‘s novelette about ghost stories. The protagonist researches ghost stories and the people who tell and who believe them, all the while kind of living through her own ghost story. It’s without a doubt an accomplished story well told, but again it lacked that certain something. The protagonist hid her feelings a little too well for me, as a reader, to get involved enough in her story for the ending to resonate. I think I should have felt more than I did.

The only story I didn’t like at all was the one by Simone Heller. I’m still not sure what exactly it is about. A tribe of post-apocalypse (maybe post-Earth) creatures is trying to survive in a hostile environment. There are “ghosts”, there are weavers, none of which are described or introduced properly. Some of what’s going on I figured out by the end, but as I spent most of the story trying to puzzle out what’s going on, who the protagonist was in relation to the others, what they were even doing, and where the hell everything took place, I can’t really say I enjoyed this. Maybe that’s my own fault for not reading carefully enough, for missing some key explanation or hint, but I didn’t like this enough to give it a second try.

I hope to have finished all the nominees for Best Novel by next week and then follow that with the Lodestar finalists. The novellas will have to wait a bit longer because I’m just not in the mood for them right now and I’m trying to keep up with my reading challenges this year. You know how it is: So many books, so little time…

The Epic Goes On: Brandon Sanderson – Oathbringer

By now my faithful readers know the reason why I’m always so late to read Sanderson’s latest instalment in The Stormlight Archive. It’s not because I’m not super excited and want to dive back into the world of Roshar. It’s because Graphic Audio take their time to produce a quality audiobook with full cast, music, background noises and so on – and I love listening to this story that way, sometimes reading along in the book, looking at the illustrations. But the time has come, I have caught up, and I can say Oathbringer continues the epic epicness of the two predecessors. SPOILERS for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance below!!!

OATHBRINGER
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2017
Audiobook: 41 hours
Hardcover: 1248 pages
Series: The Stormlight Archive #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

In Oathbringer, the third volume of the New York Times bestselling Stormlight Archive, humanity faces a new Desolation with the return of the Voidbringers, a foe with numbers as great as their thirst for vengeance.
Dalinar Kholin’s Alethi armies won a fleeting victory at a terrible cost: The enemy Parshendi summoned the violent Everstorm, which now sweeps the world with destruction, and in its passing awakens the once peaceful and subservient parshmen to the horror of their millennia-long enslavement by humans. While on a desperate flight to warn his family of the threat, Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with the fact that the newly kindled anger of the parshmen may be wholly justified.
Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope. Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together–and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past–even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.

The Stormlight Archive, as vast and daunting as its world may seem, follows a pretty clear structure. The first book focused on Kaladin (still my favorite character, just sayin’), the second was all about Shallan and her past, and this one is Dalinar’s. We know already from the first two books who Dalinar is and we also know his reputation as the Blackthorn, a powerful war lord who has won every battle his king sent him out to fight. But there are holes in Dalinar’s memory. Oathbringer fills in those holes and lets us see not only why Dalinar is the man he is today but who he used to be and what made him become “our” Dalinar. That alone was worth 1200 pages if you ask me.

But there also happens to be a few new threats on the horizon (one of them literally). The Everstorm is here, the Voidbringers are back, Roshar is in turmoil, the Knights Radiant are coming back… there is a lot to do if these characters want to bring some sort of peace to the world. And as you may guess from the massive amount of pages in this book, a lot happens. Dalinar is desperately trying to unite the kingdoms by inviting all the kings and queens to talk, a task that proves more difficult than expected, but vital if humanity is to survive long-term.

Kaladin visits his old home and learns some interesting things about the parshmen, things that already have an impact in this book but will probably become even more important later on. Shallan continues training her abilities by slipping into her various personas. This led to some truly exciting and hard-to-read character development on her part. I didn’t expect to care so much about her because, again, this is clearly Dalinar’s book, but Shallan’s story was just as intriguing. Especially the ending of her storyline felt mostly satisfying. Mostly because – as much as I dislike forced love triangles – I was rather a fan of this particular triangle. Shallan engaged to Adolin, but clearly interested in Kaladin, who in turn is drawn to her. I’m not saying the triangle is officially completely resolved by the end of the book but I’m pretty sure things are set now.

A Stormlight Archive book wouldn’t be complete without epic battles, and boy do they get epic! I thought the battle on the Shattered Plains from the first book couldn’t be topped, both in scope and in emotional impact. But hey, Sanderson did it. There are several fights in this book and what I liked was that they aren’t won by numbers or superpowers, but rather by key decisions made by certain characters. Describing a battle must be incredibly difficult, describing reading about a battle would simply be boring, so I’ll just leave you with my assurance that the epic battles are truly epic.

Another thing I adored and hope to get more of in future books is Shadesmar. We first enter this other realm with Jasnah Kholin in Words of Radiance and ever since then, it has been my own personal nightmare fuel. But of course, with a Sanderson book, even nightmare places adhere to certain rules and as such aren’t that scary. You just have to know how to navigate them. Shadesmar comes into play again in Oathbringer and while it doesn’t take up much of the novel, I was so excited to learn more about this place. I have more questions now than I did before but I’ve come to trust Brandon Sanderson to answer them when the time is ready.

As for world-building, need I really tell you again how great it is? I am still fascinated that every book opens the world up a bit more, makes me question new things that happen and want to understand the bigger picture. I believe this could be quite frustrating for many readers and if I didn’t know Sanderson’s works, I might be frustrated too. One question gets answered (sort of) and a hundred new ones appear. One mystical creature becomes a little clearer – spren, for example – and he introduces new ones that make absolutely no sense. Yet.

I did think this book wasn’t as good structurally as its two predecessors. That may be because by now, too many characters are protagonists and Sanderson tried to give each of them enough time and space. In certain scenes, the jumps between characters were decidedly too fast and too frequent for my taste and I get why it was done that way – to convey how stressful and fast the situation is moving forward – but I don’t like being ripped out of a POV every single page (or every minute in the audiobook). I also thought certain plot strings, like Shallan’s involvement with the Ghostbloods, were mentioned only to keep them alive long enough to become important again. Which may only happen in book seven, for all I know.

I realize now that I’ve written quite a bit about this book without really saying much, but that’s the thing. I don’t want to spoil anything, not the quieter character moments that make the series so special, no details about the battles, because I want you all to experience the book the way I did. With no pre-formed ideas about the plot, simply with the knowledge that it’s a journey worth taking and that none of these 1200 pages is wasted.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

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!

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!