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

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

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

BookQuest Readathon – Sign-Up

What better way to start a new reading year than with a readathon? My motivation is still super high and I want to get a head start on my reading in 2020 so when I stumbled upon this amazing-looking readathon, I knew I had to participate. BookQuest runs from January 5th through January 25th, which makes it even better. I like readathons that take more than a week because it’s just easier to organize my reading around my other activities if the time frame is longer.

The organizers at The Paper Tavern seem to have put a lot of effort into this readathon. There is a bounty board, there will be a possibility to level  up and check up on our reading stats and it all just sounds wonderful and exciting.  I can’t wait to get started!

This readathon’s quest is to defeat a scary dragon, which you can do by joining either the Mages of the Guild or the Knights of the Kingdom team. Depending on which team you choose, you get different reading prompts for a total of seven books. That includes the group read, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White (which fits well into my 2020 Retellings Challenge, yay!).

Normally, I would immediately go for the team that has magic – because magic is awesome – but for this readathon, I have decided to join the Knights of the Kingdom, led by Sir Chris the Dullhead. I mean, how could I resist. 🙂

Naturally, I already thought about what I am going to read for these prompts. Knowing myself, I may change my mind on some of these choices but I like having a TBR prepared so I don’t have to stress about finding books when the readathon is already underway.

The readathon allows for single books to count toward several prompts but as I want to read as much as possible, I picked one book per prompt.

Pick out a Weapon: Andrzej Sapkowski – Sword of Destiny
Meet With the King: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass (re-read)
Get Fitted for Armor: Brandon Sanderson – Starsight
Visit the Stablemaster: C. A. Fletcher – A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
Defeat Your Sparring Partner: Shelby Mahurin – Serpent & Dove
Sign Up for the Joust: Elizabeth Lim – Spin the Dawn
Study the Code of Chivalry: Kiersten White – The Guinevere Deception

I look forward to checking out those books. Maybe, if I’m really fast with the first quests, I’ll switch up my TBR for some bigger books. I already started reading Starsight but since one book can cover several prompts, I don’t think this readathon will be super strict about that.

Are you joining as well? If so, what team will you support and which books will you read? Let me know in the comments!

Reading The Witcher: Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish

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

THE LAST WISH
by Andrzej Sapkowski

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

First line: She came to him towards morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

2019 Reading Challenges – Wrap-Up

Happy New Year, everyone! 
2019 is as good as over and so begins the season of best-of-lists, wrapping up challenges and of course starting new ones. As an avid reader and a lover of lists, you can imagine how happy this makes me. It almost makes up for the cold weather and having to put on 50 layers of clothing every day.

I have already posted my favorite books of the year because I don’t think I’ll finish another book in 2019, so now it’s time to see how I did with all those challenges I set myself. Because the previous years weren’t so great reading-wise (and life-wise, to be honest. I lost both my grandmothers in 2017 and 2018 respectively, so books weren’t really on my mind for a long time), so I set myself very achievable goals and participated in only a few challenges. As the year went on and I stayed well ahead of my schedule, I threw in a couple of readathons which ended up pushing me even more ahead of schedule.

Goodreads Reading Challenge

I started out with a goal of 60 books. When I surpassed that in July, I upped it to 70, then 75. After that, I just decided to be happy with however many books I would end up reading, but of course a secret little voice in the back of my head kept whispering “100 is such a nice, round number”. And I did it! There were a few novelettes and graphic novels in there, but the bulk of my reading was novels (and some of them quite big ones).

I only read more pages in 2012 (34994 pages) but 2019 was filled with such fantastic books that I feel like it was actually my best reading year yet.

The Retellings Challenge

This wonderful challenge, hosted by Tracy at Cornerfolds played right into my hands. While I would have read many fairy tale retellings anyway, the reading prompts pushed me to pick up books out of my comfort zone, or older books that had been languishing on my TBR for way too long. It actually was a challenge to fill all the bingo squares and not all of my reads were great, but I am very happy with the result. I discovered new favorites (The Golem and the Jinni, The Scorpio Races), a new author I love (Joanna Ruth Meyer)  and many other fantastic books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

Here’s what I read for this challenge. I’m so happy and a little bit proud that I managed to write a review for every single one of these books!

Beauty and the Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely
Set in a foreign country: Leigh Bardugo – The Language of Thorns
Stand-alone book: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races
Wonderland: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts
Award-winning book: Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
One word title: Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
Bronte or Austen: Ibi Zoboi – Pride
Native American myth:
 Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
2019 release: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North
Egyptian myth: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars
Greek myth: 
Madeline Miller – Circe
Debut author: Melissa Bashardoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass
Free Space: Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places
Shakespeare: Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars
Asian myth: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Indie book: Esther Dalseno – Drown
Russian folklore: Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
Weapon on the cover: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Norse myth: Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
Peter Pan:
 Brianna R. Shrum – Never Never
Over 500 pages: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon
Set in space: Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen
Middle Eastern myth: S. A. Chakraborty – The City of Brass
Brothers Grimm: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples
Written 10+ years ago: Nancy Springer – Fair peril

Ongoing challenges

I also ended up, quite by accident, reading some books from the various lists and awards I follow. These aren’t challenges with a time limit, but simply books I’d like to get to someday. However, as new releases tend to catch my eye and demand to be read right now, I often forget those older books. Not so this year! Whether it was because of the Retellings Challenge, the monthly book picks for the podcast Sword & Laser, or the Harry Potter themed readathons I participated in, I actually managed to catch up on some of those lists. If you’re interested in the entire lists, I have them in my blog menu, and if you want to see how many you’ve read, I highly recommend checking out Worlds Without End.

The Mythopoeic Award

100 Must-Read Fantasy Books by Women

NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

2019 Releases

While it’s not an official challenge, I always try to read a number of new publications because I want to have read enough new books to nominate my favorites for the Hugo Awards. I doubt I’ll ever manage to read all the books that interest me and are talked about in any given year, but I did quite okay this year.

Here are all the 2019 publications I actually read during 2019. I expect to read quite a few more in January and especially once the shortlists for the Nebula and Hugo Awards are out. But I also believe I won’t have that many books to catch up on this time. I picked many books that were buzzed about – some of them I loved to bits, others puzzled me completely as to why everyone seems to love them except me – but I’m pretty sure I know which books have a shot at being nominated for awards.

2019 publications I want to get to ASAP

Whether or not these end up on an award shortlist, I want to read them desperately. And if I’m quick and lucky, I’ll get to them before the nomination period for the Hugo Awards is over. Who knows, maybe my very favorite book of 2019 is among them?

  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf 
  • Paul Krueger – Steel Crow Saga
  • Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  • Maggie Stiefvater – Call Down the Hawk (currently reading)
  • T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones
  • Brandon Sanderson – Starsight

Overall, I am more than happy with my 2019 reading challenges. I didn’t expect to get a blackout on the Retellings Challenge bingo card and I am even happier to have picked up some older books. And I still managed to read more new publications than ever before… apparently I did something right this year, finding the perfect balance between old and new, challenge books and mood reads. I can’t say that I used any kind of system but I hope that whatever motivated me so much in 2019 will still work its magic in 2020.

Who Knew This Would Be So Much Fun: Catherynne M. Valente – Minecraft: The End

I have never played Minecraft. I know of the game’s existence and I’ve seen some of the very impressive buildings people have created in it, but I still have no idea what the point of the game is. It just never appealed to me. But when my favorite author writes a Minecraft novel, there is simply no way around trying it. And holy smokes, it turned out to be excellent fun!

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Official Minecraft Novels #4
(but can totally be read as a standalone)
My rating: 9/10

First line: It is always night in the End.

For as long as they can remember, the twin endermen Fin and Mo have lived in the mysterious land of The End. On the outskirts of the great enderman city of Talos, they explore ancient ruins under the watchful gaze of the mighty ender dragon. They have everything they need in the end ship they call home, and know everything there is to know about their world—or so they think until the strangers from another dimension arrive.
The invaders are called humans, and they’ve come to steal artifacts and slay the ender dragon. Fin and Mo are ready to protect their home from the trespassers, but when they come face-to-face with the humans, they discover that they aren’t as prepared for battle as they’d thought. Caught off guard, the twins are trapped in the middle of a war between the endermen and the humans, with the future of their home at stake.

For someone like me, with no familiarity with the game whatsoever, the entrance into this world may have been a tad harder than for those of you who’ve played Minecraft. But Cat Valente does an excellent job in setting up the world, describing the countryside, the endermen, and of course ED – the Ender Dragon. I did look up shulkers on the internet, but even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Fin and Mo are two outcast enderfrag twins who live on a ship with their shulker Grumpo (who is indeed very grumpy) and a lot of loot. Their only true friend is Kan, another enderman who isn’t fully trusted by others because unlike all other enderman, his eyes aren’t magenta, they are green. You can see why it’s easy to love those three. Everybody loves an underdog, and Fin and Mo are even more likable because their biggest desire is to just fit in, to belong somewhere, to have an End of their own. With their parents gone – presumed dead by rain or human in the Overworld – they are by themselves, however, and forbidden to train with the other ender children.

When a portal to the End is opened, many endermen come together and decide how to deal with the coming threat of a human army, bound to destroy them and their beautiful chaotic way of life. When some humans do show up, however, things turn out quite different than expected, and Mo and Fin find themselves not just between the fronts of two warring sides, but also questioning everything they know about themselves and the world. And there’s a zombie horse. That I completely and utterly fell in love with. If that isn’t a sign of great writing, I don’t know what is. But Loathsome the zombie horse will always have a place in my heart.

The beginning of this novel is mostly spent setting up the world and characters, and for that I was immensely grateful! With no knowledge of the Minecraft world or any of its lore, I could still just dive in and slowly learn what there is to know. I quite loved that endermen serve the Great Chaos while humans are said to be creatures of Order (what with putting blocks on top of each other quite neatly to make buildings and beds and other such nonsense). We get to meet the dragon ED, who is a whole mystery unto himself and seems to know a lot more than he lets on, we see the adorably hateful Grumpo whom I also loved despite his constant comments about hating everything and everyone, and the music-loving Kan, who desperately wants to learn what’s wrong with him and his eyes. And then the story truly kicks off.

One of the elder endermen – a cruxunit named Kraj who is known for telling long, sprawling tales that nobody wants to hear – mentions that the human army might already be assembled in the End, hiding as spies among all the real endermen. Because when humans put a pumpkin on their head, endermen cannot distinguish them from their own people. And then the twists start coming! I won’t give any of them away, but assuming you have spies among your own trusted people is such a great trope that Valente uses and turns on its head several times here. But trust me, things are never what you expect. All my suspicions were wrong and I am so happy when a book offers plot twists that seriously surprise me.

I can’t even express how much I loved this story. The characters grew on me, the mysteries became more and more intriguing and every time we learned something new, more questions popped up that kept me turning the pages. Valente paints a surprisingly vivid landscape considering there isn’t all that much to describe in the End, but I felt like I was there and I felt just as torn as Fin and Mo, trying to decided who were the monsters and who were the good guys. Or if it’s even as simple as all that.
There is action and adventure, there are trips to different places, secrets to uncover, there is magic and potions and clues all along the way. And there are two young endermen still just looking for their place in the world.

The ending is a thing of pure beauty. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you, because the surprises just keep on coming. I sat there with my mouth literally agape, surprised and thrilled that the story had gone the way it had. You can tell Valente trusts her readers – be they middle-grade kids, young adults, or adults like me – to follow along and wrap their heads around what’s happening. But she definitely doesn’t dumb her plot down because this is supposed to be for children and I love that so much!
If you’d told me that someday I’d read a Minecraft novel, let alone end up loving a Minecraft novel, I would have laughed at you. Not because I look down on the franchise but simply because Minecraft has never really caught my interest. But this story is such a perfect adventure with great characters and fantastic worldbuilding that I can’t help but give it a high rating. I loved every page and I can only imagine people familiar with Minecraft will love it even more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen

This book took me way longer to read than expected. As a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen (the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) and a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I thought this would be just my jam. And it was enjoyable to some degree but it just never really grabbed me. Which is probably why it took me two months to finish the thing…

THE SNOW QUEEN
by Joan D. Vinge

Published by: Tor, 1980
Ebook: 495 pages
Series: The Snow Queen Cycle #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one. 

The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. Their only chance at surviving the change is if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space. Interstellar politics, a millennia-long secret conspiracy, and a civilization whose hidden machineries might still control the fate of worlds all form the background to this spectacular hard science fiction novel from Joan D. Vinge.

I’ll start this review with my very first impressions and those didn’t happen in chapter one, but rather with the author’s note. Normally, I find forewords interesting as they give some background info about how a book came to be or what inspired it. Joan D. Vinge was the first author ever that I slightly disliked after reading the foreword. I had never read anything else by her, I hadn’t read a ton of reviews of her books, I like to think that I approached this novel quite neutrally, or leaning towards positive. After I finished reading the introduction however, I felt like I’d just read a list of pretexts as to why the author didn’t publish for a while or why she published things that others may have disliked… Again, I knew nothing about her or her work and writers can publish or not publish whatever the hell they like, if you ask me, but reading this author justifying herself felt rather petty to me. This was not the best start for reading my first Vinge novel.

But when I got to the actual story, I quickly forgot all about the author and simply basked in the very interesting world she has created. On the planet Tiamat, people are divided into Summers and Winters. Winters are more tech-loving, logical people while Summers hold to spiritual traditions and felt like a more earth-bound people. The divide between technology and a more agricultural life was tangible from the very beginning of the novel, but the story holds much more world building in store. The Hegemony needs Tiamat because of a certain ressource that can grant you prolonged (maybe even eternal?) youth but it also needs Tiamat to stay technologically backwards enough that they don’t gain power over the Hegemony. It’s a super interesting concept that asks questions of colonialsm, “advanced” versus “backwards” planets and the value of human and animal lives compared to personal gain.

On that world, Moon and Sparks have grown up as Summer children and eventually young lovers. They both hope to become sibyls – a sort of Summer prophet who is said to have a connection to the Lady and be able to answer all questions truthfully. When only Moon is chosen as a sibyl, Sparks goes to the Winter city of Carbuncle, where the Queen rules. I really enjoyed his initial culture shock. Not only does his gullibility send him into dangerous situations right away but we also learned more about how different the worlds of Summer and Winter really were. And we see through Sparks’ eyes just how powerful and enticing the Queen can be. A chain of events sends Moon on an adventure of her own, but I want to say as little about the plot as possible to avoid spoilers.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. Some side characters grew on me quietly, others I disliked, but most of them felt quite fleshed out and three-dimensional. My favorites were probably the police offices – the Blues – Jerusha and Gundhalinu. In alternating chapters we follow Jerusha, Moon, Sparks, the Queen herself, and a handful of other side characters. Each of them brings their own point of view to the mix and lets us experience the truly amazing world through different eyes. The world practially built itself that way and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The other thing I liked, although it took a while to get going, was how this is a retelling of The Snow Queen. It’s not the most straight-forward retelling but I kept stumbling across elements of the original fairy tale again and again, and every time I made a connection I was happy. Sparks being drawn in by the Queen Arienrhod and turning more and more into a creature of ice, Moon undertaking a journey in order to save her boyfriend, the people she meets on the way, it’s all there.

The reason this book took me a ridiculous amount of time to read, however, was the writing style. This was one of those books that was fun enough as long as I was reading but whenever I put it down, I had no desire whatsoever to pick it up again. So I read other books in between. And then some more books. And every time I saw the cover of this one, I felt slightly guilty that I still hadn’t finished it, so I’d pick it back up again and start reading and wonder what my problem was. It was fine, why didn’t I want to know what happened next? I still can’t answer that question properly but I suspect that old timey writing style and the way some things just take ages to move along may have had to do with it. It is a well-written book but the style didn’t really grab me. It felt a bit outdated (even though I usually don’t mind that) and although I appreciated the characters, I never built an emotional attachment to them – the one exception being Gundhalinu at the end of the story. That guy really grew on me and I wanted his story to have a happy end so badly.

All things considered, I did like this book and I loved the world building, but it’s not a book I’ll remember super fondly. I would like to read the sequel simply because I can’t get enough of the world Vinge has created and I want to learn more about it, but knowing myself, it’s probably going to be a few years before I build up the motivation to dig into that.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

 

The Women Are the Heroes: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon

This is probably one of the oldest books I own. Not by publication year but by the sheer amount of time it has spent in my possession, unread. Finally – thanks again to Ashley from Bookkeeping for the recommendation – I picked up this mighty tome and dove into this world of myths and magic and powerful women.

THE MISTS OF AVALON
by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Published by: Ballantine, 1982
Hardcover: 912 pages
Series: Avalon #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Morgaine speaks… In my time I have been called many thigns: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.

Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, THE MISTS OF AVALON will stay with you for a long time to come….

We’ve all heard the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but never quite like this. If I had to sum up this book quickly, I’d say it’s Arthur’s story but from the women’s point of view – except that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Bradley delivers in this epic story.

It begins before Arthur is even born, with his mother Igraine, who is unhappily married to Gorlois, a man twice her age. The very beginning of this book already sets the tone of the entire novel. I remember first picking up this book at a young age (I want to say 14 or 15 years old?) and being shocked that a young girl of 14 could be married off to some duke or prince and already have had her first child! While I may know a little more about history now, I still felt the same unease when I read about Igraine – essentially still a child herself – think about childbirth and her marriage bed and wifely duties. And of course love has no place in that world. But Igraine’s roots are in the magical island of Avalon and her ties to that world of magic lead Viviane and the Merlin to Tintagel Castle one day to prophecy that Igraine will bear the King who will unite all of Britain.

I won’t recount all that follows afterwards. This is an epic tale that spans many years, introduces new characters, sees beloved characters die, but always focuses on the women. If there is a protagonist, it surely is Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter who is sent to Avalon to become a priestessof the Goddess. Meanwhile, Britain is at war with the Saxons, and another war rages, quieter  perhaps, but even more dangerous to all those who hold with the old faith. Christianity is on the march and while those who still live the pagan way have no problem accepting people of other beliefs, we all know the Christian God will have no others stand beside him.

The plot often revolves around who will marrie whom, who should succeed the King, who can bear a male heir to whom, and so on. That may sound boring but Bradley made it really exciting. It also shows the divide between love and “usefulness”. Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s romance is a well-known part of Arthurian legend but I liked how it was shown here. It’s not even so much a matter of lust but actual love. These two just want to be together but are forbidden by the rules of religion and society.
Gwenhwyfar was actually my least favorite character. She is crazy pious and hates everything to do with magic and Avalon and the old faith. But at the same time, that makes her a highly interesting chracter to follow because her own dreams and wishes go so decidedly against her faith. She wants Lancelet, even if that means she would be an adulteress.

The other main focus of the story is just that – faith against faith. While Morgaine and Avalon fight for their place in the world, Christianity rages over the country with no respect for what was there before. Throughout the book, pagan rites slowly become fewer and fewer, people bearing the tattoos of Avalon are less respected, there are accusations of witchcraft, and things generally don’t look good for Avalon and the Goddess. The women of Avalon also have a very different outlook on love and sex than Christian women. For a priestess, it is her who chooses the men she spends time with, and if she wants to sleep with several man, that’s fine. As you can imagine, the more pious Christian women think of the priestesses as harlots. To them, the man decides and they are basically their husband’s property, even if, deep down, they may not agree with that.

There is no way for me to tell you in one short review just how many things happen in this book. It’s 900 pages long, so that should give you a good idea… it’s a lot! When I think about it, there was plenty of talk about marriage and succession and religion, but the amazing characters made those mundane topics interesting. Marion Zimmer Bradley not only put women front and center, she also made them varied and believable. None of them are purely good or evil, they each have their own hopes for the future, their own reasons for behaving the way they do. Some of their actions are questionable, others understandable. But even though I did not like all of them, I appreciated each and every single one of these women as characters. That doesn’t mean that men are powerless – given the time and setting, men still hold most of the power, but the women surrounding them don’t shy away from pulling a few strings here and there.

It took me almost two months to read this book (I read other ones in between, savoring this one) and I feel almost sad to let it go now. While I can’t say that the plot was always riveting or action-packed, I also couldn’t point to a single boring moment. I found the world Bradley has created immersive and magical and it definitely made me want to read more Arthurian legends. I don’t know if I’ll continue with this series anytime soon because The Mists of Avalon can easily be read as a standalone and I’m quite happy with the way it ended.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Very, very good!

Best of 2019: My Favorite Books of the Year

I have head SUCH a fantastic reading year, you guys! Not only did I surpass my goal by a crazy amount (mostly thanks to the OWLs and NEWTs readathons) but I also did really well balancing older and newer books, catching up on unfinished series, finally picking up that book everyone loved ten years ago, and so on. I am quite proud of myself and I am even happier that I have such a long list of favorites. 2019 has been good to me, reading-wise.

As per usual, I’ll split my top reads into books published in 2019 and books published before this year. This will also give you a good idea of which books will make it onto my nomination ballot for the Hugo Awards. I’ll include all the 2019 publications I’ve read that didn’t make my list of favorites, so you know what pool I have chosen these books from.

Favorite Books Published in 2019

Novels

The most recent publication of 2019 and a book I did not expect to love as much as I did was Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo.  I knew I liked her writing, her characters, and her stories (so… everything, basically), but this is her first novel for adults. It is set in the real world and it deals with ghosts and demons and stuff. That didn’t sound like my jam. But boy, did I fall into this story! It took me all of one chapter to fall in love. Then the crazy world of secret societies in Yale drew me in more and more. Alex Stern is one hell of a protagonist, the plot was exciting, the storytelling structure kept me intrigued the entire time… I hope that enough people read this in time for nomination season because it totally deserves an award nod or two.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine was a fantastic start to a space opera trilogy (series?) that I went into without much expectation. Reviews had generally been positive, so I thought I’d try it out. And then Arkady Martine blew me away with great world building, brilliant ideas, and characters that sneakily weaseled their way into my heart. We follow Mahit Dzmare, the embassador of a small space station, to the capital of the gigantic Teixcalaanli empire because the previous embassador has been mysteriously killed. Now, figuring out whether it was murder and if so, who murdered him, is one thing. But navigating that foreign-to-Mahit society with a second person implanted into your brain is a whole different story. I was hooked immediately and enjoyed every single page. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

I am one of many people who loved the clever mind-fuck that was Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. Part military science fiction, part time travel story, lots of nods to Heinlein and Haldeman, but entirely its own thing, this novel kept me transfixed the entire time. When I wasn’t trying to figure out what the hell was going on or putting the puzzle pieces together, I was engaged by the protagonist and their internal struggles, and especially by the world Hurley has created. There are so many details in this book that I suspect make it a great candidate for multiple re-reads. I urge everyone who likes either time travel, riddles, or military SF to pick it up. I am pretty sure this will end up on the Hugo Award short list.

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey came out of nowhere for me. It was sold as Harry Potter for adults but with a Muggle protagonist. And yeah, it pretty much is that, but it’s also a detective story at a magic school. The murder mystery was exciting and I loved following along with Ivy as she gathered clues, interviewed people, and so on. But what made this book so special for me was the frayed relationship between our muggle protagonist and her magical sister (there is some jealousy involved, as you can imagine) and the student characters we get to know throughout the story. This was just an incredibly well written book that I hope more people will pick up. I haven’t heard a lot of buzz around it yet but it absolutely deserves it.

Other 2019 books I’ve read:  Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth, Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow, G. Willow Wilson – The Bird King, Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread, Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch, Fonda Lee – Jade War

Young Adult

For the Retellings Challenge I picked up Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer, which retells one of my favorite tales, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Instead of a polar bear, the male character in this story is a white wolf. And while all the stops of the original fairy tale are there, Meyer has made this quite her own story. Echo is a lovable heroine whose decisions remain understandable the entire time (if you know the fairy tale, then you know that is not the case with the original protagonist).  The magic castle where Echo lives with the wolf almost feels like its own character (it has a magical library!!!), and the ending was such a thing of perfection, I have no words to describe it.

I have loved Sam J. Miller‘s writing ever since I read The Art of Starving. His adult novel Blackfish City was even better! So naturally I grabbed Destroy All Monsters the moment it came out. While it wasn’t quite as perfect as his other two books, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, it had brilliant, flawed, difficult characters, and the relationships between them are anything but simple. This book wasn’t so much about the plot (there is one, don’t worry) but more about mental health, friendship, and how to deal with trauma. The fantasy element was cool but if you want nice, clean lines between your fantasy world and the real world, this may not be for you. Things get blurry, things get messy, and I loved every bit of it.

I will say again what I’ve said in my review of the book. I liked The Cruel Prince but I LOVED The Wicked King by Holly Black. The characters are already set up, the world isn’t new for us readers anymore, and the plot in this second book just keeps on giving. Jude and Cardan’s relationship has always been weird, to say the least, but Holly Black does such a fantastic job writing these characters that I kept catching myself hoping they’d end up together. It’s wrong… and it’s made clear that it’s wrong. Cardan’s a dick, Jude is getting more and more power-hungry, and their feelings for each other are probably more lust than love. But man, do I ship them! But this isn’t only a book about whether two characters get together – there is political intrigue, betrayal, really thrilling scenes where you worry for the protagonist’s life, and oh yeah… you may have heard that the ending offers a huuuuge twist. I did not see it coming and it hit me right where it hurts, like all the best stories do.

Other 2019 YA books I’ve read:  Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely, T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage, Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns, Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing

Novellas

My biggest surprise when it comes to novellas was probably To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Not only did that short book pack a lot of plot but it also shows great worldbuilding, the authors’ well-known almost too nice characters (a bit less nice but more realistic here than in her novels) but it also makes you geek out with the four space travellers over finding a tiny proof of life on a distant planet. There is so much to discover in these pages and I loved everything about the story. Even the ending – though it is a polarizing one – was okay for me. Sure, I may have preferred a slightly different one but I felt that the chosen ending hit the right tone for the novella’s ultimate message.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone turned out to be a completely different kind of story than I expected. Two agents of warring factions are changing events in time in order to achieve… some goal, I guess? You see, it’s not important why there is a Time War, what’s being fought for, or even who may win in the end. Red and Blue, the two protagonists, communicate across space and time via letters and coded messages. Their correspondence turns into friendship and even into love. So this is an epistolary story with a time travel background, but the heart of it are the characters and the beautiful language. It’s not what I expected but I enjoyed it very much. I admit, my esteem for the tale has grown a little less as I am slowly forgetting details about it, but while I was reading it, I was completely in that world. And for that, it deserves a spot on this list.

Other 2019 novellas  I’ve read: C. S. E. Cooney – Desdemona and the Deep

Graphic Novels

I knew I would love Colleen Doran‘s graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s short story Snow, Glass, Apples. I just didn’t know how much. This dark retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the not-really-evil stepmother hit all the right spots. It’s clear early on that Snow White is the villain in this one and the queen is just trying to save her people. As dark fairy tales go, this one is pretty damn dark! But what made it even better than the story as such was the amazing artwork by Colleen Doran. The story just flows across these pages, even though there is little use of panes. There are so many details that you can linger on every page, soaking in the gorgeous drawings. Highly recommended!

Other 2019 graphic novels I’ve read: V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince

Non-Fiction

Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places & Outer Spaces was a fairly short read, but it packed a punch. I have read many of Okorafor’s books and loved them all (most recently the Akata series which gave me the same vibes as Harry Potter did all those years ago), but I hadn’t known anything about her as a person. In this book, she talks about an operation on her spine which left her paralysed. She explains not just what life is like with limited mobility (spoiler: it’s difficult, and there’s lots of little things able-bodied people like myself don’t even think about) but also how this thing made her into the person she is, how it gave her ideas and how she then put those ideas into writing. As memoirs go, I have little experience, but this was as exciting to read as any novel, and I loved the insight it gave me into where some of Nnedi’s amazing ideas had actually come from.

Favorite Audiobooks (published whenever)

I have loved audiobooks for as long as I can remember but ever since I developed a serious audiobook habit, I have noticed just how much of a difference the narrator can make. In order to honor the people who have read me some gorgeous stories, I want to share my favorite audiobooks with you. These aren’t necessarily favorite books, but the narration or production of the audiobook feel noteworthy to me.

Nnedi Okorafor makes an appearance again, with her amazing novel Akata Warrior. This book also belongs to the list below (favorites published before 2019), but the audiobook was such a standout experience that I have to mention it here. As the book is set in Nigeria and features mostly Nigerian characters, but a protagonist who grew up in America, narrator Yetide Badaki had to do different accents. Now I can’t judge how accurate the Nigerian accents were (Badaki was born in Nigeria, so I assume she knows what she’s doing), but it was such a pleasure listening to the story and to the dialogue that frequently switched between American English and English with a Nigerian accent, that I was totally immersed in the experience. The duology (so far) also comes highly recommended in general. As mentioned above, it gave me strong Harry Potter vibes, not because it’s a copy of our favorite boy wizard but because reading it filled me with the same sense of wonder.

Holly Black’s The Queen of Nothing may not have made it into my favorites of 2019, because I just loved The Wicked King more, but the audiobook narration of all three novels in this trilogy is fantastic! The books are read by Caitlin Kelly and while she doesn’t do accents, I really liked how she differentiated between the various characters. She was especially great at reading Cardan. When audiobook narrators read a character of a different gender from their own, it can sometimes sound forced or even ridiculous (men doing squeaky high voices for female characters for example) but Kelly managed to deepen her voice and even to give Cardan a super sexy timbre without ever taking me out of the story’s flow.

Lastly, I have to recommend Graphic Audio yet again for their mindblowing productions. In 2019, I listened to the full cast audiboook of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and it was as much of a treat as the previous two books. The series itself is a highly ambitious riveting epic fantasy that I just can’t get enough of. But having the dialogues acted out by different people, with background music and sound effects, just turns these audiobooks into a whole new experience. Graphic Audio have adapted most of Sanderson’s work and while the audiobooks don’t come cheap, I highly recommend you check them out. You can start with one of Sanderson’s shorter standalone works or the Mistborn series to see if you like this type of radio play. I gladly throw my money at them and basically auto-buy any new adaptation that comes out. Because they’re just that good!

Other audiobooks I’ve listened to: Megan Whalen Turner – The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner – The Queen of Attolia, Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky, Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few, Martha Wells – Rogue Protocol, Leigh Bardugo – The King of Scars

Favorite Books published pre-2019

My standout older book of the year was probably The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker. I had known that I would love this book but I didn’t know just how much. Every review I’d read has mentioned buzz words and plot devices that pushed all my buttons. But reading about Chava and Ahmad, these two mythological creatures pretending to be humans, following their day-to-day lives, and discovering their origins, was so much more rewarding than I could have guessed. I loved everyting about this book. The characters, the language, the structure… and then Wecker even goes ahead and delivers an action-packed perfect ending.

Another book that gave me tons of warm and fuzzy feelings was Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer. I had actually started reading this before 2019 but put it aside again (because the timing sucked). This time around, I was enthralled the entire time. When I wasn’t basking in Taylor’s lyrical language, I let myself fall into her world of blue-skinned demon children, a boy who grew up in a library, and a city trying to get over its dark past. I haven’t picked up the second part of this duology yet because I have a feeling I will need this book for bad times or a reading slump. Strange the Dreamer was one of the most gorgeous tales I have ever read and it has a firm place in my heart.

I was already in love with The Raven Cycle so when I picked up The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, I expected nothing less than a new favorite. And I got just that. But in addition to a beautifully told story about magical horses who come from the sea and eat humans (and whatever else they can find), Stiefvater also delivered a brilliant, quiet romance between two incredibly lovable characters, and the most perfect last line I have ever read. In any book. Ever!
I cried several times during this novel, but when I read that last page and got to that last line, I was a sobbing mess. If you want a gorgeous standalone novel with a bit of mythology, a bit of romance, and fantastic characters, pick this up.

This was the year of Leigh Bardugo for me. I finished her Grisha Trilogy (plus King of Scars) and I’m finally getting the hype. Her short story collection, The Language of Thorns, was a spectacular return to the Grishaverse.
These are the fairytales told in the actual Grishaverse. So you get “The Too-Clever Fox” (where Nikolai’s nickname comes from) plus a bunch of others. Each story is fantastic on its own but together they paint such a vivid picture of the world Bardugo has created. Plus, the book itself is stunning. The print comes in two colors and with gorgeous illustrations.

I enjoyed Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff’s Gemina – the second book in the Illuminae Files Trilogy – mostly because it was the right book at the right time for me. At a different time, my opinion of this book could have been very different, more critical, more analytical. But I needed a quick, thrilling adventure with a bit of romance and this fit perfectly. The format, transcripts of video footage, chat messages, phone calls, etc., made this really easy to read. The plot was like Die Hard in Space and the romance may not have been original, but it worked for me. While it is maybe not an award-worthy piece of writing, it gave me exactly what I needed and I enjoyed every single page. Who cares if this is great literature. It gave me plenty of enjoyment, silly romance, action and fun, and I will not feel guilty for loving it!

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman is a special book. I didn’t fall head over heels in love with it immediately, but the story grew on me over time. The longer I read, the more I liked it and the more I cared about Tess. It’s a quiet tale of a girl coming into her own, dealing with her past, and finding her place in the world – quite literally. Although it is an episodic story, it never felt episodic. The writing is beautiful, but the characters were the living, beating heart of this book. So though this wasn’t an immediate crush, once I finished the book I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the warm, happy feelings it gave me stayed with me for quite a while.

That’s it for my favorites of the year. 2019 has been good to me!
I discovered some new-to-me authors, I caught up on series and backlists by authors I already liked, I read a variety of books – graphic novels, non-fiction, novellas, and of course lots of novels – and it has been an incredibly rewarding year. What were your favorites? Leave a link to your post or share your standout 2019 books with me in the comments! I love to see what everyone else read this year and which books I may have overlooked. And of course:

Happy New Year!!! 🙂

An Artist’s Life: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series has been on my radar ever since I caught sight of the first of those gorgeous covers (I mean look at the one below!). The only book I’ve read so far was the amazing (if super tough to read White as Snow), so it was time I  tried another one of these retellings. This one takes a (to me) unknown Hungarian folktale and weaves it into a contemporary story. As a fairy tale retelling, I have to say this failed pretty bad, but as a novel in general, I really enjoyed it!

THE SUN, THE MOON, AND THE STARS
by Steven Brust

Published by: Ace, 1987
Hardcover: 210 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: You want to know what good is? I’ll tell you what good is.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow’s belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll’s cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust’s fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.

Greg is a struggling artist who shares a studio with some of his artist friends and still hopes tfor a break through, who wants so badly to create a masterpiece, a painting that will mean something. Until then, however, all he can do is pursue his art and hope for the best.

This novel was interesting first of all because of its structure. Each chapter is divided into several sub-chapters. The first deals with Greg’s past (his time at university, how he got to know his girlfriend, how he first met his friends, etc.), the second is about the present. Greg does karate and art. He spends most of his time in the studio and, at the beginning of this book, starts a new project on a large canvas, lovingly called “the Monster”. The other sub-chapters talk about how Greg approaches his new painting, about art in general, and – not to forget – about the Hunarian fairy tale Greg tells his friends. You may have guessed that this is the titular “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”.

As a huge fan of fairy tales, I was quite surprised that I found myself more drawn to Greg’s life in the 80ies and his musings about art than about the fairy tale he tells. The story of Csucskari and his two brothers who set out into the world to restore light to the sky was nice enough, but it didn’t really capture me the way Greg’s struggles did. You see, he and his four friends share their studio and it’s getting pretty hard raising rent, also due to the fact that most of them don’t really sell any paintings. They paint and draw and sketch because it’s what they love to do but during this novel, they all ask themselves what’s the point. Shouldn’t they just quit? Get a day job with a secure income? Maybe waste their potential?

There isn’t even a lot of plot in this book. Greg and his friends are thinking about doing an art show, so they can get their paintings out into the world. But mostly, the story deals with their relationship with each other and with art. Greg talks a lot about what he wants to achieve, about techniques and light sources and I am making it sound super boring right now, but it totally isn’t!! I don’t paint at all, although I did just do my very first painting with acrylics (an art class I got as a gift) and it was a lot  of fun and also way harder than I expected. But even without any real knowledge about art history or craft, I found everything Greg had to say about it interesting. His troubles can be easily translated into any other art, be it writing, or dancing, or martial arts. He talks about hours of practice, about using what you were taught at school, about how ideas may come easily sometimes and sometimes just won’t come at all. Even if you’re not artistic in any way, I’m sure you will be able to relate because everything Greg struggles with is utterly human.

What I didn’t get was how the fairy tale was supposed to fit into the narrative. Sure, Greg has Hungarian roots and he tells his friends folk tales sometimes, which is why we get to read “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” but it really had nothing to do with the main story. I guess if you put some effort into it, you can kind of see parallels between Csucskari’s quest and Greg’s search for meaning in his art and also the evolution of his new painting. But the connection isn’t really tangible. I enjoyed the fairy tale as such, especially because it was one I hadn’t read before, but I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.

As for the characters, they are an interesting lot. I read several reviews that said Greg was a pretentious douchebag, and yeah, I guess to some degree he is. But I never had any trouble sympathising with him. The other characters remain rather pale, but as a group, the five artists felt real and believable. They critique each other’s art – sometimes that leads to them being pissed at each other, but it also makes them better at what they do. They chat among themselves, they dream together, they worry together, they fight and they make up. The present day passages are very dialogue-heavy so the characters come across mostly through what they say or choose not to say. Otherwise, we really only focus on Greg.

This book was not what I expected, especially as a fairy tale retelling. But I found it immensely entertaining, I learned a lot about painting and about art in general, and while I think the connection between fairy tale and real life was minimal at best, I’d recommend this to anyone who is involved in the arts and maybe wants to create something themselves. If nothing else, the book will make you feel understood and less alone.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

I had the hardest time finding an indie book for the Retellings Challenge for several reasons. Number one, I admit it, I am biased and book covers do have an impact on me. So if I see a cover that looks like someone threw it together with Word Art, I don’t want to read that book, no matter how amazing the text may be. Plus, it’s really hard to find recommendations when you’ve already read the most “hyped” indie retellings. But I did find something (with a gorgeous cover, no less) that turned out to be really, really good!

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

Published by: Little Birds Books, 2015
eBook: 260 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: It was destined to fail because it was an artificial species.

Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.
Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.
A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.

Many fairy tale retellings use the original tale and give it more depth by putting them in a different setting or time period, by giving the protagonists a job other than “prince” or “miller’s daughter” and by giving them a backstory and personality. That’s what I love so much about retellings – that you can discover something new about a tale you generally already know. So reading about an android Cinderella or a Beauty who is also a gardener is something I enjoy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good way to retell an old story.

Esther Dalseno went a different route  in her version of The Little Mermaid. None of the characters in this book have names. The little mermaid is just the little mermaid, the sea witch gets no name, and even the prince and his uncle are only called by their title. It’s to the author’s credit that it took me a few chapters to even figure this out because the story flows beautifully right from the start and I didn’t feel like there was anything missing. There are enough original ideas to make up for this traditional way of telling a fairy tale. The prose in general was very good and made it easy for me to fall into the story. The one big gripe I have – and that goes to the list of baises I have against indie books – was the many, many typoes and even grammar mistakes. They got worse and worse toward the end of the book and that’s just not necessairy. A copy editor should have easily found those mistakes and fixed them. They’re not even style problems (which are subjective anyway) but really just spelling mistakes. That’s the only thing that ever took me out of the story. It’s a minor gripe but it bothered me nonetheless.

Now let me tell you why this was such a great book anyway. The little mermaid lives with her six sisters and her father in the underwater palace where they eat delicious food and admire their own beauty. The merpeople are completely emotionless and don’t really do anything, but learning about their species – and the way that the little mermaid just doesn’t seem to fit in – was quite fascinating. We don’t just see them they way they are now but we get a little origin story about how merpeople even came to exist. The same goes for the sea witch’s backstory which is revealed more and more throughout the novel.

The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely – definitely more closely than other retellings I’ve read and when I say “the fairy tale” I don’t mean the Disney version but the one by Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid falls in love with the handsome prince but what she wants even more than to be with him is an Immortal Soul! And because she believes that marriage grants you half your partner’s soul, she makes a plan to visit the sea witch and have herself turned human. She gives up her voice for human legs and goes to the palace to win her prince. So far, so predictable. But wait! While the prince may not get a name, he does get a personality. His father has just died and the prince is dealing with severe depression and self-harm. That came out of nowhere for me and gave the otherwise very pale character a lot of depth. In addition to the mermaid’s point of view, we also follow his and while I may not have liked him very much, I appreciated him as a character.

Once the little mermaid has turned human and lives at the palace, the story offers more and more original ideas that diverge from the fairy tale.The prince’s uncle (and king regent), for example, plays an important role. He was in fact the most interesting of all the characters. Servants gossip about how he picks a different maid each week to visit his room at night, yet he seems like a sad, lonely man. The little mermaid is quite scared of him (because she thinks his beard is an animal parasite sticking to his face). Figuring out the uncle’s character, why he is the way he is, and what his plans are for the future, was almost as much fun as following the little mermaid in her quest to marry the prince.

If you’ve read the Andersen fairy tale, you know it doesn’t end happily. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this version has a similar ending. The tone of the book is pretty dark right from the start, so a happy ending would simply not have fit! But even though you may know how the little mermaid’s story ends, you’ll be hooked until the last page to find out what happens to her sisters, her father, the sea witch, and the merpeople in general. I liked how Esther Dalseno mixed a predictable story line (if you know the fairy tale) with her own ideas in order to keep us readers guessing. The whole backstory of the merpeople’s origin and the uncle’s role turned this into a fascinating read. Except for the many spelling errors, I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this if you like fairy tale retellings and want to try something published by a very small press. I certainly hope Esther Dalseno publishes more retellings in the future.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

If you’re curious about the type of errors I was moaning about, here are a few examples:

[…] before her could examine them[…]

[…] usually the couple were sick of the sight of each another by one year’s end. […]

[…] he had saw fit to […]

But then again, you’ve been to absorbed to notice.

Again, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the story for me but it is something that’s easily remedied. If I can find these errors while reading the story a single time, a publisher should have been able to see them as well and fix them.