What an ending! Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising

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

RUIN AND RISING
by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A hot mess: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.

GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan

Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. 

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.

Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.

As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to –  you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.

Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…

Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.

This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!

I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than  Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.

Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.

The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing.  I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.

That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.

I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.

MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)

Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

Don’t you just love it when writers get better with every book? I didn’t love the first book in The Grisha Trilogy, Shadow and Bone, but it had potential and I was really interested in the world Barduga had created. So, after a long wait, I picked up this second part and completely fell into it. Seriously, I read Ruin and Rising right afterward and the Grisha short story collection The Language of Thorns somewhere in between. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone below!

SIEGE AND STORM
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt, 2013
Hardcover: 435 pages
Series: The Grisha #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Two weeks we’d been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost.

Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Alina and Mal have managed to escape the Darkling and leave their country of Ravka behind. Trying to save up some money to make a new life for themselves, their plans are destroyed and they are captured, the Darkling’s prisoners once again. On the way back to Ravka and to whichever terrible plans the Darkling has for Alina, they get to know Sturmhond, a notorious pirate, I mean privateer. If Alina wants to bring safety to her country once more, to destroy the Fold, to defeat the Darkling, she has to take on a completely new role. Command the Second Army, grow into her power, and maybe even make a political match to give the people of her home country hope.

Second books in trilogies are often treated unfairly, I think. Sure, they often only serve to set up the big finale, but sometimes, they do much more than that. Siege and Storm, for instance, introduces one of the best characters in the entire series, the pirate Sturmhon! His charm is infectious, and Leigh Bardugo shows off just how well she can write funny dialogue. Because Sturmhond is also kind of unbearable (in addition to being charming), there is a lot of quippy banter and clever backs and forths. Given the dire situation – the country is at war, the Darkling has new ideas on how to take over and probably hurt or kill a lot of people in the process, and the people are divided – a little bit of comic relief is more than necessary. I think the author found a really good balance between serious and fun in this novel.

This is also the book that finally shows Alina isn’t just a grey little mouse who lets herself being pushed around. Sure, there are still times (lots of them) where she is out of control, where the Darkling uses her weaknesses against her to control her next move, but she visibly grows over the course of the story. By the end of this book, you won’t recognise the girl she was before. In essence, she is still herself and still longs for the same simple things, but she has grown up enough to understand that those simple things are less and less likely to happen, that she has to make sacrifices if she wants to save her country. I really felt for Alina in this book. She has to make some tough decisions and face some ugly truths and although she manages it all, she is very changed by the end.

Another strength of this book was the development of Mal and Alina’s relationship. Just like Alina has to figure out her place in the world, especially because she is the Sun Summoner, Mal has to figure out his place in her life, which is just as hard. For me, Mal only really became a character in this book. In the first part, we only learn from Alina how wonderful he is and how everybody loves him and he has an easy way with people and blablabla. Here, we actually get to see it, to understand why people are drawn to him and want to be his friends. It made me like both Alina and Mal more and made it even harder to read about them growing apart because they both know (or think they know) it’s better for everyone. As of writing this, I don’t know how the story ends, but I hope so very much that they will somehow find a way to be together.

As for the plot, ther are parts that are slow moving. Alina arrives back in Ravka at court and has to deal with politics and a new situation plus some new Grisha powers. There are plans for war and discussions with royalty and it’s not exactly action-packed. But these parts are the ones that show off Alina’s growth so beautifully, so I didn’t find them the least bit boring. Plus, at the end the book really picks up the pace again and a lot of things happen! There are betrayals and broken hearts and mysteries yet unsolved and new players in the game of power. So basically everything that makes a story great.

If (like me) you didn’t really get what everyone was so excited about after the first book of this series, then do yourself a favor and just read on. I am almost done with the third book and I can already say, it’s even better than this one. I have grown to care for these characters and for Ravka, and by now I’d even call myself a Leigh Bardugo fan.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

The Grishaverse:

  1. Shadow and Bone
  2. Siege and Storm
  3. Ruin and Rising

 

Ursula Vernon – Digger

I have made no secret of my love for T. Kingfisher and her utterly charming fairy tale retellings. But T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon who – being the same actual person – writes tales just as charming and, it so happens, draws her own comics as well. She also seems to adore wombats which makes me adore her. The tale of digger is a big one and all the more praise to the author for making every page a pleasure.

DIGGER: The Complete Omnibus
by Ursula Vernon

Published by: Sofawolf Press, 2013
Hardcover: 823 pages
Collected Graphic Novel
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ve been digging for a long time.

Digger is a story about a wombat.
More specifically, it is a story by author and artist Ursula Vernon about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of indeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.
With an irreverent sense of humor and a fantasy protagonist with a healthy dose of skepticism, Digger rapidly gained a huge following of devoted fans eager for the twice a week updates of the webcomic for the duration of the comic’s run. Digger’s story is now complete. It has been compiled in six bound volumes, each including additional content not posted online.

Digger is a wombat who finds herself in a tunnel with no way back. So she does what any sensible wombat would do in her place – she digs on until she comes up somewhere. This somewhere, it turns out, is in a temple for a statue of the god Ganesh who is trying to help Digger find her way back home. But there is magic at play and things are not quite as simple as just digging another tunnel. So Digger explores her surroundings, meets many strange and amazing creatures – hyenas with war paint, a prophetic slug, a bunch of monks, some of whom may or may not be insane, and a weird little shadow creature whom Digger tries to teach about life and morals.

I really don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because it is just such a joy following Digger and seeing how things unravel around her. She is the same kind of practical, no-nonsense heroine that Ursula Vernon writes in her fairy tale retellings, and as such is easy to love. But Digger is also a badass with her pickaxe and her claws. You wouldn’t think the ability to dig tunnels could come in so handy sometimes.

I especially enjoyed Digger’s relationships with the friends she finds along the way. Her goal is to somehow get back home, but because gods and magic and ancient myths are involved, she kind of has to save the world a little bit before going home. And although Digger doesn’t believe in gods, doesn’t think very highly of the monks she encounters, and definitely doesn’t agree with the dietary habits (especially the tea) of the hyena she meets, she’s a good sport and helps along. After all, while she’s stuck in a strange place, she may as well make herself useful.

The art, although all in black and white, is delightful. Digger and her companions come to life through simple lines but there is a lot of love for detail in the larger pieces. I discovered several fish with interesting headgear in the margins, who have no bearing on the plot whatsoever and seem to exist simply to delight the reader. I’m sure I haven’t caught all of these little easter eggs but I giggle every time I did.

At over 800 pages, Digger is a brick of a book, but I enjoyed every page. There are twists along the way, some of them heart-wrenching, others funny, and although the ending tore my heart out, the tone of the book overall is humerous. This was 800 pages of fun, with a lot of heart, the bravest (and coolest!) wombat I’ve ever read about, and despite some slower moving parts, it begs for a re-read. Ursula Vernon has created a memorable cast of characters, all of which kind of grow on you as you go along. You won’t even notice when it happens but suddenly, you care what happens to them which makes the ending all the more powerful. I absolutely loved it.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Recent Reads: January 2019

As this blog has been on hiatus through most of 2018, I’ve been playing catch-up with writing reviews to all the wonderful books I’ve read. The creative juices are flowing again and you can expect more reviews to come in the following month. Since those reviews include a lot of books I read sometime last year, here’s a little peek into what I’ve been reading in January.

Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

It took a while for me to warm to Leigh Bardugo’s writing, but once I starting liking it, it wasn’t long until I fell in love. After I finished her fairy tale collection The Language of Thorns, I had to finally get on with the Grisha trilogy. Full review to come, but spoiler: I really liked this one.

Leigh Bardugo -Ruin and Rising

You may have guessed why I read this book. 🙂
I really, really loved how this trilogy ended, how the characters grew with every chapter, how the plot strings all came together so nicely. The trilogy had a slow, rather paint-by-the-numbers start for me, but it ended up being so much more than I expected.

Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

My full review will be published in early February but I can already tell you that I was very disappointed with this book. I’m well aware that hyped books have a hard time living up to expectations, but when literally everything that was promised (on the book description, on blurbs, by early reviewers) turns out to be the opposite, I have to ask myself why. A pretty cover and the pretense of being feminist and stereotype-smashing won’t fool anyone who actually reads the book. Sure, this may have sold a lot of copies but disappointed readers will think very hard about buying the sequel…

V. E. Schwab – A Conjuring of Light

I loved the first book in this trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Which made me all the more disappointed with the mediocre, oddly paced sequel A Gathering of Shadows. Which, in turn, made me put off reading the final book for so long. While this was definitely better than the second book, I had some problems with the characters and the (lack of) plot twists. If by mid-book the protagonists form a plan and then spend half the book executing it, without much in the way of opposition or surprises, the entire story falls rather flat. It was an okay ending overall but I’ve yet to write a full review.

R. F. Kuang – The Poppy War

This was a difficult book to read and I don’t know if I’ll review it. I don’t even know where to start sorting my thoughts about it, let alone write a cohesive review. It’s half military school, half war novel, with full on magic and gods. While I really loved the book, I can’t say that it was an enjoyable read. It asks many, many tough questions, deals with dark themes, and because it is so multi-layered, it’s hard to even know who to root for. Definitely recommended though!

On my February TBR:

  • Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Warrior
  • Susan Dennard – Windwitch
  • Ibi Zoboi – Pride
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars

Lyrical, touching, gorgeous: Patricia A. McKillip – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

It’s easy to get swept up in the newest releases, the hyped-about fantasy debuts, the books nominated for awards – and it happens to me all the time. Last year, I made an effort to not forget about older books, to always read one newer and one older book at the same time, to catch up on classics, to read the books that inspired the books we’re currently hyping. I found some amazing books because of this and I will definitely try to read more older books in 2019 as well. Because, for one, it led me to The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD
by Patricia A. McKillip

Published by: Gollancz, 1974
Paperback: 208 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king’s city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye.

Sybel, the beautiful great-granddaughter of the wizard Heald, has grown up on Eld Mountain with only the fantastic beasts summoned there by wizardry as companions. She cares nothing for humans until, when she is 16, a baby is brought for her to raise, a baby who awakens emotions that she has never known before. But the baby is Tamlorn, the only son of King Drede, and, inevitably, Sybel becomes entangled in the human world of love, war and revenge – and only her beasts can save her from the ultimate destruction…

Sybel lives isolated on her mountain, surrounded only be her beloved animals – creatures of myth, collected by her father and grandfather, and now the only friends she has or wants. Until one day, a baby is dropped at her doorstep, and in taking that child in, Sybel discovers her all-too-human emotions because she grows to love the child. This is how this fairy tale of a book begins and while the languages continues to be lyrical, rife with symbolism, and simply beautiful to read, the plot goes into more familiar fantasy territory soon.

Tamlorn, Sybel’s adopted son, is not just any child. Away from Sybel’s mountain, two nations are at war. One led by an insecure king, the other by a group of nobles trying to rise up against him. Tamlorn is the king’s son and as such an important piece in their game of power. Although Sybel wants nothing to do with humans and their war, Tamlorn naturally longs to find out more about himself and where he came from. They are both dragged into a war they know nothing of and will each play their part, whether they want to or not.

I came to this book knowing nothing beyond the barest premise – a sorceress living with some magical beasts on a mountain – and I think that has made the reading experience even better. McKillip immediately draws you into her world with her poetic language. It’s never too flowery or cheesy, but it hits just the right note of lyrical. Another amazing part of this book is its main character: Sybel, so aloof, so distant, yet so very human at her core, without even realising it herself. Throughout this tale, she learns who she really is and who she wants to be and that alone would have been interesting enough to fill a novel, even without the war and love story and mythical beasts.

But, oh, the beasts. While at first, they don’t seem to have too much personality (dragon wants to hoard gold, gets really cranky when not enough gold is there), each of them seems to become more distinct during the story. They are not just mythical creatures with magic powers, they are living, breathing beings with a mind of their own, with a moral compass, with feelings – some of them fond feelings toward Sybel. In the beginning, the eponymous forgotten beasts may only appear like window dressing, like a way for Sybel to demonstrate her power, but they are actually vital to the plot!

The Fogotten Beasts of Eld is also a love story, although a very different one than I’m used to from current fantasy books, especially YA. Coren is wonderfully open about his feelings for Sybel and there are no unnecessary obstructions created by misunderstandings or love triangles. Sure, there is a war going on, and Sybel, Tamlorn, as well as her beasts could turn the tide of events, and the fact that Sybel wants to stay out of it all does cause difficulties between her and Coren. But the love story itself, their feelings for each other, are never in question.

I can’t say any more about the plot without giving too much away, but let me say that the best parts (plot-wise) of the novel I haven’t even hinted at. This is a quiet sort of book that is much more concernced with the matters inside its characters than with epic battle scenes. But the questions of morality, of using ones power – whether for good or bad (and who’s good and who’s bad anyway?) remain. This is as much a tale about family – found rather than born into – as it is about kings and warriors. It’s an emotional journey through a magical world and I loved every beautifully told page of it.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

Quietly powerful: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Last year, through no reason at all, I started reading a newer book and an older book at the same time. There are still so many SFF classics I need to catch up on and, somehow, combining and older and a newer read worked really well. It led me to this amazing book, which led me to a LeGuin shopping spree.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Gateway, 1969
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Hainish Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

A while after I started reading this book, I discovered that it was part 4 of something called the Hainish Cycle. Don’t let that scare you away. I haven’t read any of the other books and this one stands quite well alone, although it gives you glimpses of what the other books may be about.

The story is set on Gethen, a winter planet populated by an androgynous people who can become male or female when they reach a certain time in their sexual cycle. They may become male once, female the next time, but the rest of the time they appear neuter and thus, all equal. This may seem like an obvious choice for a feminist writer to make a point about gender equality and it could have come across as a cheap trick – but with someone of LeGuin’s caliber, the people’s gender identity (or lack thereof) grows naturally from the story.

Much like other aspects of the culture Genly Ai discovers on Gethen, the world-building itself is done so effortlessly, by showing instead of telling. While the gender thing may feel complicated to someone like Genly – who is male and always looks male (which makes him appear as constantly at the peak of his sexual cylce to Gethenians, or constanlty aroused) – Gethenian politics and social norms seem even stranger. This is just one aspect that made this book so great. It introduces you to a humanoid people on a planet that has similarities to ours, except it’s always cold, always winter. But the social structures, the genders, the sexual identity of its people are just different enough to give you the same sort of culture shock Genly must be feeling.

There are other things that I had a lot of fun discovering with Genly and trying to piece together in my mind. Oracles, prisons, tensions between nations… but those are just things that happen on the sidelines, between the actual plot. And that, although one might say not very much happens, is just as thrilling. Genly is on Gethen to observe, to let the people know that there are others out there in the vastness of space, that they are not alone but rather welcome to join a greater unity of people. One of the people Genly has to do with on Gethen is Estraven, whom he does not fully trust and who we, as readers, also can’t really put our finger on until the story progresses.

Genly Ai may be the offical protagonist of this novel, but it was Estraven I kept wanting to follow, to learn more about. Through their adventures together, the reader gets to know both of them better as they get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. What LeGuin does here with language is just beautiful. There are no long expositions, no explanations even, simply us readers quietly watching Genly and Estraven and the planet Gethen doing what they do and learning through them. The descriptions of the eternal ice and the winter landscapes were lovely, but it was the relationship that builds up over the course of the novel that really intrigued me.

I could read all sorts of things into this book and that makes it enjoyable even after having finished it. It’s the sort of book you should read with others, to discuss afterward, to see what others saw when they read it. I suspect every reading will give you a different experience (although I have yet to try that out myself) and every person will get something different from the book. But despite having only read it once, I understand why it won all sorts of awards and why it counts as a classic of science fiction. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Twisted and magical: Leigh Bardugo – The Language of Thorns

I didn’t really like Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, but I absolutely loved the duology set in the same world (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), so I decided to give the Grishaverse another go. The second book in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, Siege and Storm, was much better and made me finally get why there is such a large fandom for these books. Now that the Grisha bug has got me, I needed to delve into that beautiful book of twisted fairy tales set in the Grishaverse – and it was, if possible, even better than the main stories.

THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Orion Children’s Books, 2017
Hardcover: 281 pages
Short Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

This collection of fairy tales set in the Grisha universe contains six stories, some of which are set in Ravka, some of which in other parts of the Grisha world. Most of them are recognisable as well-known fairy tales from our worlds, but because each tale has such a distinct flavor, I’m going to talk about every one of them a little. I didn’t read them in order because I discovered “The Witch of Duva” before this collection came out (and loved it!) and you can pretty much read these tales in whichever order you like. They are not connected, other than by the fact that they’re all set in the Grisha world.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

I loved how much like a fairy tale this felt! It is about a family with two daughters, one pretty and talented, the other… not so much. Because the second daughter, Ayama, is not much to look at and the family want to showcase their beautiful daughter, they make Ayama into a scullery maid who sleeps in the ashes in front of the fireplace (ring a fairy tale bell yet?).
It is also the story of  a king and queen with two sons, one handsome and lovely, the other in the shape of a wolf with terrifying horns. Because the king is so ashamed of this second son, he has a labyrinth built under his castle and imprisons the son there.

When the kingdom, currently at war, suffers damage to their fields and livestock – said to be done by the beast that escaped its labyrinth under the castle – the king asks for a brave soul to delve into the wild forest and slay the beast. Or at least convince it to leave the people and their livelihood alone. After little ceremony, Ayama is sent on this journey and – in a lovely twist – has to save her hide from the beast by telling it stories. I won’t say more about the plot at this point, but the writing is just exquisite. It does read like a fairy tale, but one where the characters aren’t cardboard. The imagery is gorgeous, the ending was as perfect as can be. This is an excellent opening story for the collection and makes you want to read the whole thing in one sitting (which is what I did).

The Too-Clever Fox

This title was actually mentioned in the Shadow and Bone trilogy (in the second book, when Alina meets Sturmhond), so I was eager to find out what the fairy tale had to do with a pirate… sorry, privateer. It is almost a fable, the story of a trickster animal, too clever for his own good. It tells of how Koja, the fox, escapes a series of dire situations through cleverness and wit. But he has to admit, by the end, that even he can be outsmarted.

The Witch of Duva

This is the Grisha version of Hansel and Gretel and the story works so well because as readers, we all go in with a set of expectations. We know Hansel and Gretel, we know certain things that have to happen, we know how the story ends. Now while you may expect Bardugo to put a spin on things and give you an alternate ending, I bet you won’t guess the twist at the end! It’s not only a well-written story, it’s a well-written story with an excellent ending that makes you want to re-read it right away.

Little Knife

This was my least favorite story in the collection, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just not as good as the competition. It’s about a girl so beautiful that everyone – and I mean everyone! – wants to marry her. When her father sees his chance for riches, he sets his daughter’s suitors three impossible tasks, promising whoever manages them, her hand in marriage. There is a prince vying for her favor but there is also a Grisha who seeks the river’s help in accomplishing these tasks. Again, there is a nice twist at the end that I really loved, but the rest of the story fell rather flat in comparison and the characters never get to be more than what you’d get in a fairy tale.

The Soldier Prince

A story based on The Nutcracker and set in Kerch! I have loved The Nutcracker since I was a little girl so I immediately loved where the story was going. It begins with Droesser, a clockmaker, a tinkerer, a man who seemingly brings mechanical things to life. He seeks the favor of a young girl named Clara and gifts her a nutcracker to tell her secrets to.

But the story soon goes in different directions. At first I thought it was about Droesser, then about the dreamy girl Clara, who wishes nothing more than to escape to fantasy worlds with her beloved nutcracker. But it is actually about the nutcracker himself. That’s all I’m willing to say about the plot. The ending manages to be wonderful without a shocking twist, this time, and while it’s one of the longer tales in this collection, it is also a beautifully satisfying one.

When Water Sang Fire

This too is based on a real world fairy tale and when I tell you that the protagonists are mermaids, you’ll know which one. Ulla is different than the others. Where they are beautiful, she is grey and strange. All she has is her amazing voice and her gift for composing and singing music, which is how the sildroher use magic. Through this skill, she makes one friend, the beautiful red-haired Signy and in combining their voices, they catch the eye of the youngest prince, Roffe.

Only the most highly valued sildroher get to accompany the royal family when they go on land to frolick with the humans. They cut their tails to create legs, they dance and dine with humans, they bring gifts and keep the diplomacy between the two species. Ulla and Signy get to go along as Roffe’s friends and, let’s just say, things get a little out of hand. I honestly thought I knew where the story was going, and then it went a completely different way, only making sense again at the end. And I loved every page of it.

The collection

I do have to say a few more things about the collection as a whole and about the book as an object because it is GORGEOUS. Every single page is illustrated, starting with only a small illustration in a corner, which then grows as you turn the pages, adding a little bit every time. Each story also has a beautiful piece of art at the end (some of them spoilery, so beware!) and the font is different colors!!! I’ve added a taste of them in my review but really, you have to see them in person to understand just how beautiful they are. This is an excellent book to gift to someone, especially if they like fairy tales or just pretty books. It will give anyone a taste for more Leigh Bardugo fiction and, if you’re like me, it will make you want to devour all the Grisha books you can find.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

Tough yet rewarding: Robin McKinley – Deerskin

When you like fairy tales and their retellings as much as I do, there are some books where you know going in they’re not going to be fun. No matter how well written, no matter how skilled an author is at creating memorable characters, the fairy tale plot simply makes it clear that there will be at least certain scenes that will be difficult to read. Donkeyskin is such a fairy tale and I think it’s no wonder there are so few retellings of it.

DEERSKIN
by Robin McKinley

Published by: Open Road Media, 1993
Ebook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side.

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.
But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”
The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!
On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.
Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.
Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Her nursemaid has told her the story of how her father won her mother many times and it is a truth well fixed in Lissar’s mind as well as the entire kingdom that her mother is simply the most beautiful creature they ever beheld. When she dies, her father the king goes mad with grief and, after a few years, decides to marry again. As Lissar has grown into a young woman, she looks more and more like her mother so – honoring his dying wife’s last wish to only marry another woman if she is as beautiful as herself – the king decides to take Lissar, his own daughter, as his new queen. Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.

The terror of that fairy tale is hard to describe and Robin McKinley has taken on quite a task in retelling it. Through Lissar’s eyes, the reader experiences just what it might feel like to be this fairy tale heroine, to be chosen by your own father as his new bride. I cannot begin to explain what I felt when the king made this announcement, when he decided to marry his own daughter and share her bed – it was truly the worst part of this book to read and it’s the reason I will never re-read it (although it was an amazing book).

Lissar is a quiet heroine, one without friends except her beloved dog Ash, whom she takes with her when she manages to flee the palace into the cold winter world. Physically and emotionally broken, Lissar meets a sorceress who grants her the gift of time to heal as well as a change in appearance and a magical dress made of deerskin. The following passages read like a dream (or a nightmare) with Lissar somehow surviving a winter alone with her dog in a hut in the woods. Her healing happens slowly and only by pushing away any memories of what happened to her, but after some time, she manages to get a job at the court of another kingdom. She is supposed to try and keep a litter of dogs alive whose mother has died. Nobody believes she can manage but Lissar throws herself into this task as if it were the only thing keeping her alive.

Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself, caring for dogs, even befriending the prince who has as much love for his dogs as Lissar does. But sooner or later, Lissar’s past catches up with her and she has to confront her suppressed memories, has to remember who she is and what has come to pass before her life in the royal kennels.

This is an incredibly difficult book to read because of what it puts Lissar through. But at the same time, it is beautifully written, very slow moving but never boring, and ultimately rewarding. Lissar’s bond with Ash as well as the litter of dogs that everyone thought doomed to die, was just wonderful. The friendship that slowly grows between her and the Prince felt real and believable – there is no insta-romance simply because he’s a prince and, hey, we’re in a fairy tale, so naturally the princess in hiding and the prince must end up together. There is a scene at the very end in which Lissar and Prince Ossin confront the truth, that definitely doesn’t fit the mould of happily-ever-after but is so beautiful and touching because it doesn’t hide the past. Theirs feels like a relationship built on trust and love and acceptance.

I made it sound like there is almost no plot in this book and while it isn’t your action-packed adventure novel, there are some very exciting chapters. Lissar and Ash’s life in the woods come with the threat of wildlife, Lissar’s life the palace bringts its own threats. It was also great watching Lissar turn from a young, quiet girl in a white dress into an almost revered woman called Moonwoman, where before she was simply called Deerskin. The magic McKinley added to this story is exactly as it should be – it has no apparent rules, you don’t know where it comes from or even if it’s real but it gives the story a mythical quality that pushed all my happy-buttons.

Again, this book is not for everyone, and it is definitely not fun! But I found it a powerful, beautifully executed fairy tale retelling that I heartily recommend. Few authors would manage to tell such a tale without gratuitous descriptions of the violence or without cheap “solutions” for Lissar’s pain. Robin McKinley managed just that – she wrote a gorgeous tale of pain and healing, of friendship and love, and especially of a bond between a girl and her dog that touched me right to the bone.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher has worked her way into my readerly heart really fast with no intention of leaving again. No matter what story of hers I pick up, they all give me some hours of enjoyment and when I finish them, I am wrapped in a blanket of happiness. Kingfisher’s fairy tale retellings have become something of a go to comfort read for me.

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2015
Paperback: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.
But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?
Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most retold tales out there, but I think it is also one of the most difficult ones to make both interesting and not creepy. Fairy tales are, by their nature, simple stories with characters who don’t have much personality, if any – another difficulty in retelling them. But not for T. Kingfisher, who can do both really dark (see The Seventh Bride, her Bluebeard retelling) and humerous. Bryony and Roses definitely has its dark moments and it doesn’t end the way a Disney movie would either, but all things considered, it is a rather fun book to read and made me chuckle quite a lot.

Bryony is a gardener. She and her sisters live alone and have to make ends meet somehow. It is because of her passion for plants and gardens that Bryony and her horse almost freeze to death, only to stumble upon a – you guessed it – enchanted castle. The corner stones of the fairy tale are all there. The castle magically provides food and clothing, although unlike any other retelling I’ve read before, it seems to have a mind of its own as well. The castle definitely has a taste in clothing and décor because while it’s nice that a place cleans itself up after you mess it up, that doesn’t mean everything has to be cleaned into an explosion of pink. 🙂

Bryony also encounters the beast who is, much to my delight, a really nice beast and not a creepy dude keeping a young girl prisoner in his home. I mean, sure, Bryony kind of has to stay at the castle but the beast is both a nice conversation partner and even tries to help her with setting up a little garden of her own. In this retelling, their friendship and, later, romance, is believable because they are just two people (well one human, one beast) who get along really well and find shared interests.

But as many books, this one stands or falls with its protagonist. Bryony is resourceful and clever and easy to love. Not only is her love for plants infectious, she also figures out very soon that something is not right in the castle, that there must be some kind of curse, and she does all she can to figure it out. No wallowing in self-pity, no missing obivous hints. It’s so refreshing to read about a girl who has both a heart and a brain!

I won’t say much about the conclusion because Kingfisher came up with a wholly original idea as to why the castle and the beast are cursed and what that curse entails. The ending was, just like the rest of the book, lovely. And because I’m telling you so little about it, let me mention Bryony’s sister, who only shows up for a tiny little part but totally stuck in my mind. The fact that she, too, has her own mind and a distinct personality made her immediately loveable, in a matter of pages. It is the mark of a great author to bring characters to life so easily and I’m really sad that I have now read all of Kingfisher’s fairy tale novels.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!