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

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

THE CITY OF BRASS
by S. A. Chakraborty

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

First sentence: He was an easy mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Hook’s Point of View: Brianna R. Shrum – Never Never

As someone who loves retellings and adores Peter Pan, it was time to try a new-to-me author who tackled the classic story of the boy who would never grow up. I haven’t read a lot of retellings from the point of view of the villain, but because Hook is enigmatic and wonderful and full of layers, I was quite curious to see how Shrum would tell his story.

NEVER NEVER
by Brianna R. Shrum

Published by: Spencer Hill Press, 2015
Paperback: 356 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: All children, except one, wish to stay young.

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up. When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child – at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children’s dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up. But grow up he does. And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn’t about Peter Pan; it’s about the boy whose life he stole. It’s about a man in a world that hates men. It’s about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan. Except one.

We all know Hook, the infamous pirate captain who lost his right hand to Peter Pan, who in turn fed it to the ever-ticking crocodile. We know Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys, the splendors of Neverland and the magic of fairy dust. But when this story begins, James Hook is a regular boy living in London, dreaming of being a famous pirate captain, but quite focused on making his father proud and showing good form. Getting into a good school, excelling at his tasks, putting serious effort into Growing Up. Until he meets Pan in Kensington Gardens one day…

Peter swiftly spirits Hook away to Neverland where he lives as a Lost Boy for a while. Although James is sceptical from the very beginning of Peter’s games and eating nothing but make-believe food, he goes along with it because he senses the darkness in Pan, the danger that lies in wait for him should he break Peter’s cardinal rule: Never Grow Up!

I thought Shrum’s choice to do a few time jumps was a great way to tell the story. James inevitably does grow up a bit because he simply isn’t the type to stay a boy forever, and of course he ends up captaining his very own pirate vessel. He also feels drawn to Tiger Lily, at first a little girl but soon a young woman who may develop more adult feelings as well.

While the writing is engaging throughout the novel, there is little to no plot for at least two thirds of it. Hook mostly struggles with the fact that he doesn’t know how to leave Neverland without Pan – and Pan refuses to help Hook in any way because, well, he’s growing up. The idea of Pan being anything but innocent is not new, so I didn’t find this fact to be very interesting. It’s clear that Peter has a dark side  (Peter is mostly dark side, if you ask me) so that isn’t enough to keep me interested as a reader. And Hook’s pain at realizing he may never see his family again because he is stuck in Neverland was not enough to keep me interested for long.

For quite some time, Hook does pretty much nothing. There are many moments where it is shown that he has responsibilities as a captain, that he should command his people, that they should do something. And they do a little. Some ransacking here, some conquering of other pirate ships there, a quick stop at a nearby port of Neverland… but honestly, it never becomes clear what these pirates do all day. And I wouldn’t have minded so much because that’s just a fact of Neverland – stuff doesn’t happen unless Peter is there – but  the author specifically made Starkey, Hook’s first mate, remind Hook of his duties all the time. When the pirates still didn’t really do much and Hook didn’t interact with them a lot, it began to bother me.

Eventually, the plot does get going and a romance evolves. I thought it was quite nicely done, especially with the tone of the novel shifting from childlike fairy tale to a more grown-up style. Both James and Tiger Lily felt like surprisingly mature people, considering they are still quite young and don’t have any experience other than life in Neverland – which is not exactly the place you look to for advice on how to be a grown-up. But I liked both of them as characters, even though Hook was dreadfully inactive after his first attempts at escaping Neverland were thwarted.

I was surprised at how little this story overlaps with the original Peter Pan. Sure, all the characters are there and even Wendy and her brothers show up at the end, but other than that, there aren’t any recognizable events from Hook’s point of view. It’s a different story that only melds with the original Peter Pan at the very end. The ending in general was completely different from the rest of the book. Not only does the author rush through events at high speed, but certain characters also change personality really quickly. Tiger Lily, that amazing girl with a mind of her own, suddenly does a 180 and turns from a clever young woman into an intolerably stupid girl. Hook’s development into the villain we all know is more gradual and therefore more believable.

All things considered, this was an okay retelling with a lot of focus on character rather than plot. Few elements of the original Peter Pan are there, but I did like the one scene that was taken from the book and twisted to fit this version of events. Not my favorite retelling, not groundbreaking in any way, but not a bad book.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

My thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists 2019

I AM SO EXCITED!!!! Every year, when the Hugo Award finalists are announced, I get all giddy and excited to see what I’ve already read and what I have to catch up on. Ever since I started voting in the awards myself, I have seen a mix of books I loved, books I didn’t much care for and books I hadn’t even had on my radar. This year looks absolutely fantastic and I already have no idea how I’m going to rank these books on my ballot…

Here are my thoughts on some of the categories.

Best Novel

I have read four out of the six nominees, which is much more than I’d ever read when the finalists were announced. I read the first book in both Yoon Ha Lee‘s trilogy and Becky Chambers‘ series and I loved both of them. So it’s time to catch up. As I heard the nominated Chambers book is only loosely tied to the first two books, I’ll probably leave out the second one and go straight to Record of a Spaceborn Few. Chambers’ feel-good characters and optimistic style make me really look forward to the experience. I will also read Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun because if they’re anything as good as the first novel, I want to know. Even though it will make ranking these books even more difficult.

As for the books I’ve already read: I am beyond happy that Cat Valente’s excellent, heart-warming, and hilarious Space Opera made the cut. It was quite a departure from what Valente usually writes, although she does stay true to her style, even if it’s tuned down a bit. I am in no way surprised this book pleased so many people. It is highly original, super funny (I’m still giggling about the alien “invasion” chapter) and full of love and hope and all things good.
The Calculating Stars was a surprise hit for me. I didn’t really expect to like it all that much, and it was definitely not a comfortable book to read, but it no doubt deserves to be on this list. It had great characters, a super interesting setting (alternate 1950ies and 60ies) and dealt with so many themes that make the story exciting even without space battles. Sexism, racism, anti-semitism, mental health issues – it’s all there but it doesn’t bog the story down and it all feels so organic. Which is probably why reading this book was so uncomfortable.
I adored Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and that is why I wasn’t quite so in love with Spinning Silver. That may be slightly unfair because this is a fantastic book with minor structural problems, but it simply can’t  keep up with its predecessor. I loved the protagonists, the love stories, the fairy tale feel of it, but the POV changes (and randomly added POV characters) diminished my reading pleasure quite a bit. And with an author that excellent, I have to nitpick like this.
Now for my slightly more unpopular opion. Trail of Lightning was a lot of fun. I am already looking forward to reading the sequel, but I don’t think that this book is worthy of an award. The only thing that made it stand out for me was the setting and mythology – using Native American myths as a basis is something new to me and I found it refreshing and exciting. But the plot and the characters were very generic. It’s like reading a cozy mystery. You know what you’re going to get and you’re totally happy with that. But I personally wouldn’t throw an award at this book.

Best Novella

  • Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  • Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: The Night Masquerade
  • P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums
  • Kelly Robson – Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Tea Master and the Detective

I’ve read only two of these novellas. Artificial Condition is at the top of my list at this moment. While I loved the first two Binti novellas, I thought the third one was the weakest in the triloy and therefore didn’t nominate it. It was a nice ending to the story but nowhere near as good as the first two books.
As for Seanon McGuires series, I’ve read the two previous instalments. I really disliked the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, but felt the second one, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told a much stronger and engaging story. So I’m curious to see what the third one holds in store.

I’ve heard of the other three books but don’t know any of them yet. The first to catch up on will probably be The Black God’s Drums, simply because I like the sound of it most.

The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

  • Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles
  • Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  • Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  • Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

I have read a whopping single book of this list. The Cruel Prince was quite good and I will read the sequels, but I get the distinct feeling that I will prefer some of the other nominees. I’m currently reading Tess of the Road and (at about 10%) I already know I love this story! Children of Blood and Bone has been on my TBR ever since it came out but since then, I have read some really scathing reviews that make me a little hesitant to finally pick the book up. As a good voter, I will definitely read it, but my high expectations have been lowered considerably. I once read a teaser excerpt of Peadar O’Guilin’s book The Calling – to which The Invasion is the sequel – and remember liking it. I hope I’ll find the time to read both books before voting ends.
As for Dread Nation and The Belles, neither book really spoke to me when it came out but I trust my fellow nominators and will check them both out. A great book you didn’t expect is always a good thing.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Katherine Arden 
  • S.A. Chakraborty 
  • R.F. Kuang 
  • Jeannette Ng
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Rivers Solomon

KATHERINE ARDEN!!! Ahem… So, you may have guessed who I’ll be voting for. I nominated Arden because she absolutely blew me away with The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. With one book, she became an author whose books I’ll buy witout looking at the synopsis and that’s saying something.
I was also really impressed with R. F. Kuang‘s novel The Poppy War, so she’ll be high on my list as well. My current read is The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty and I’m loving it so far. Which only makes my decision harder.
I have Jeannette Ng’Under the Pendulum Sun and Rivers Solomon‘s An Unkindness of Ghosts on my TBR and look forward to reading them. Vina Jie-Min Prasad is the only author of whom I’ve heard nothing before, probably because (as far as a quick interwebs search goes) she writes mostly short fiction and I’m always behind on short fition.

Best Series

  • The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
  • The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
  • Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
  • The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
  • The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
  • Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

This is the category that I find the most daunting because if you’re not already familiar with a series, that means a lot of reading! I have read the first books in the Machineries of Empire series and Wayfarers but since books in both of these series are also nominated for Best Novel, I will read the sequel(s) as well.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle is the next series I’ll tackle after that because I’ve been dying to read Infomocracy anyway. I don’t know how long the first October Daye book has been on my TBR and I’m not sure I’ll manage to read much more than that first book. The Laundry Files have also been on my radar for a while but the only book I’ve read from that series was the novella Equoid which was excellent (book #2.9 according to Goodreads). So I’ll probably also give the first in the series a try. For the Xuya Universe, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by reading the nominated novella The Tea Master and the Detective.

I do follow the other categories, I’ll listen to the nominated podcasts and already watched (almost) all of the movies, but I don’t have that much to say about them. The long fiction categories are the ones that have my heart so I’ll spend my time reading as much of them as I can. But I have to say, this year looks absolutely spectacular in terms of what got nominated. If the books I haven’t read yet are as good as the ones I have, choosing favorites will be difficult. Once I’m all caught up, I may do another post with my ranking. Whether you guys are also voting in the Hugos or not, rest assured that the nominees are an excellent source for recommended reads.

Easter Update – Currently Reading, Recently Read

My pretty consistent schedule of posting reviews has been interrupted lately, not because I haven’t been reading but because spring is here and with it nice weather, outdoorsy things, meeting with friends, getting exercise in the fresh air and all that good stuff. So I have read less than in the first three months of 2019 but I have by no means stopped. Reviews are in the making, I’m catching up on some Hugo reading (more on that later) and generally enjoying hobbies other than reading. I will try to post one review per week again soon, but for now, the sunshine and my new running pants pretty much own me.

Recently read

I only finished one recently that I haven’t told you about yet. It  is The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson – a wonderful, mythical, and powerful story about Fatima, a young courtesan in soon-to-be-conquered Spain, and her best friend Hassan, who has a magical gift with mapmaking. There are djinn and mythical tales, islands that don’t exist, the Spanish Inquisition, love and betrayal – and despite that it’s a very quiet book that touched me more with the character development than with action. I loved it to pieces and highly recommend it to!

Currently reading

I am being a good girl and reading one book for my Retellings Challenge, one book for the Hugo Awards and one simply because it’s long overdue and I finally want to read everyone’s thoughts on it without fear of spoilers.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never retells the Peter Pan story from the point of view of Captain Hook. We meet young James when he is still a boy, spirited away to Neverland by Peter Pan himself. Unable to find his own way back home, James grows into the Captain Hook we all know. I enjoy the writing style but I’m almost three quarters done with this book and there still isn’t much of a plot. In a retelling, I always hope for a little something more than just the story I already know. It’s an okay read so far and I honestly doubt the ending will surprise me, but we’ll see.

As she is nominated for the Not-a-Hugo Award for Best New Writer, I am finally reading The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. Now this book is a total hit so far. I am still very confused about djinn politics and social structures, but I love all the characters, I want to learn so much more about this world, and there hasn’t been a single page that wasn’t exciting in a way. I’m glad I’m reading this although it will make my choice on the ballot much harder.

My third book – and one that will likely be with me for a while longer – is Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. As you may know, I like “reading” his books (whenever possible) in Graphic Audio format. Which is why I wait almost a year until after publication to finally read the latest book in the Stormlight Archive. It’s another great one but I’m sure Sanderson kept the best, most epic bits for last. I am almost halfway through this book but half a book with Sanderson is two novels for other writers.. so it will take me a bit longer to finish this.

Reading plans

I don’t have any particular plans, but I do want to keep up my Hugo reading. I nominated my favorite books of 2018, the finalists have been announced, so now I have lists of stuff I still need to read and watch in order to make an informed decision once voting time arrives.

Either I’ll go with Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few next or Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem – the third book in that trilogy is nominated but I have only read the first, so I need to catch up quickly.
For the Lodestar nominees (the newish YA Not-a-Hugo), I’m really looking forward to Tess of the Road. I have only read one of the nominated works which makes me rather anxious. Then again, having too many great books lined up is not really something I should complain about.
And just so I don’t lose sight of books for the Retellings Challenge, I may finally start Circe by Madeline Miller or finish the Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch.

Susan Dennard – Sightwitch

And I’m back with more Witchlands. The next instalment in the series just came out, so I didn’t want to read it right away (makes the wait for the next book shorter). But thankfully, there is this prequel-novella (200 pages still counts as a novella?) about side-character Ryber.

SIGHTWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor Teen, 2018
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2.5
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: You don’t remember me, do you, Kullen?

Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
Set a year before TruthwitchSightwitch is a companion novella that also serves as a set up to Bloodwitch, as well as an expansion of the Witchlands world.

Although this is technically a prequel (#0.5 of the Witchlands, if you will), and you can read it without having read any of the other books in the series, I think it is better to read it after Windwitch. Certain things that happen in this novella could spoil the second book otherwise. So, if you’ve read the first two Witchlands novels, you have already met Ryber Fortiza on Prince Merik’s crew and you know she and Merik’s Threadbrother Kullen are together.

Here, we meet a much younger Ryber during her time with the Sightwitches, waiting to be summoned herself and gain the power of Sight – remembering everything immediately, seeing the future, preserving memories from the dead. Year after year, young Sightwitch Sisters are summoned into the mountain to converse with the Goddess Sirmaya. Except Ryber. Yet she doesn’t give up, she follows every rule and is a model student, hoping that her devotion will get her summoned eventually.

It’s a great set-up for a story and one that made me sympathise with Ryber immediately. Nobody likes being the one left behind. And as Ryber watches her friends, especially her Threadsister Tanzi, summoned, with herself  still left Sightless, she becomes more and more desperate. When all Sightwitch Sisters are summoned, leaving Ryber completely alone, she knows that following the rules isn’t an option anymore. If she doesn’t take matters into her own hands, none of the Sightwitches might ever return. An no rulebook is worth that!

It was really nice that this shorter book finally explained the magic in a bit more detail. Sure, we focus on Sightwitches here, completely ignoring all the other magic out there, but the system seemed beautifully thought out and even based on a sort of common mythology. I guess that mythology and ancient history will be quite important for the series in general. We learn how people in the Witchlands came to possess magic in the first place and the events that led to this change. I found all of that incredibly interesting, not just because it’s a great story in itself but also because it gives the world so much more depth than it had with just the two main books in the series.

But this book isn’t only about Ryber and her journey into the mountain to save the other Sightsisters. We jump back in time to another Sightwitch’s life – in fact, we jump straight  into Eridysi’s journals and learn what was going on a thousand years before Ryber. I also really liked Eridysi as a character and found her story almost more intriguing than Ryber’s. But – you may have guessed – the two stories aren’t just there by happenstance, they do connect in the end.

Ryber’s trip into the mountain was probably the most annoying part of the book. She meets Kullen (no spoiler, it’s literally on the first page) and while they don’t exactly hit it off, they form an alliance of sorts to try and get out of the crazy mountain alive. Why crazy, you ask? Well, there’s all sorts of monster and weird rooms and other stuff that wants to kill you down there. Fun to read, for sure, but I was way more interested in the background stories. Fleshing out the story of the Paladins and how they died many, many years ago. How magic came to the Witchlands, what kind of doors Eridysi was trying to build and whether she ever succeeded.

In the end, things connect really well, and many questions were answered. Although even more appeared, especially when it comes to Kullen and certain events from Windwitch. This book also doesn’t continue seamlessly into Truthwitch so I’m left wanting to know how Ryber got from the end of this book to where she is when we first meet her on Merik’s ship. But all things considered, this was a nice shorter trip into the Witchlands and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the series. Sometimes, you can leave out the bonus novellas or short stories that come with book series, but this one just feels important to the overall world.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Susan Dennard – Windwitch

After the happy surprise that was Truthwitch, I decided to continue Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series and see where she takes her characters and what else I can learn about this world. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things wrong with this sequel, but not enough to deter me completely from the series. I have high hopes for the next instalment and I’m already reading the (so far really great) prequel Sightwitch.

WINDWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  Blood on the floor.

Sometimes our enemies are also our only allies…
After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.
When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?
After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

Well, if ever there was a book that started with a bang, this is it! When I started reading, I thought for a little while that I had skipped a volume or missed a chapter because boy, stuff goes down right away! Prince Merik escaped from his exploding ship and now lives in hiding, scarred, hurt, and somewhat depressed at the state of his home country and himself. He misses his Threadbrother, he has no plan on what to do next, and he can’t stop thinking about Safiya fon Hasstrel…

Meanwhile, Safi and Iseult – separated as per the end of book one – don’t have it much easier. Iseult desperately tries to find Safi again and stumbles across Bloodwitch Aeduan – my (and probably most other readers’) favorite character. Safi starts out much like Merik, with a shipwreck and on the run. So the stakes are high right from the start, there is lots of interesting conflict  and character development to come, and I sank into this book smiling smugly, knowing I had chosen wisely.

And to be fair, the book does deliver a lot of these early promises. But it also has a lot of problems. Let’s start with the good stuff. I enjoyed, more than anything else, Iseult’s character development, the things that are revealed in her storyline, and above all her relationship with Aeduan. These two are thrown together by fate and continue their journey side by side for a while to mutual benefit. But as you can imagine, a sort of friendship does form, although one expressed through grunts and constantly saving each others lives rather than through actual spoken words. I loved every second of Iseult and Aeduan, especially because we get to read both their POVs and see how they’re both unsure they can trust the other person but they also both want the other person to stay alive.

Merik’s storyline was also not bad, although it had major parts that were too drawn out and quite frankly boring. He returns to his home unrecognizably scarred and while he enjoys this new anonymity, he still wants to save his kingdom. We also finally get to know Merik’s sister, Vivia, and let’s just say, there is more to her than meets the eye. I should say more than Merik has led us to believe so far. Because we get to see this ruthless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry character through her own POV chapters, she feels much more three-dimensional, much more multi-layered and although I can’t say I liked her (at least not at first), there is no denying that she was interesting as hell to read about!

Safi’s story was actually the weakest of them all. There were more things I disliked about her story than things I liked. First of all was the fact that her and  Vaness get throwin into situations involving other nations, bands of pirates, weird magic-resistant guys, and yet more groups of people who we may have heard of before but I just found it all very confusing and had a difficult time keeping all the new characters and factions straight. There is not enough explanation, not enough time to understand the world-building properly to get into the whole “which faction is betraying with other faction” thing.
Even worse though was Safi’s fickleness when it comes to the romance. I really liked her tense relationship with Merik in the first book and I wanted these two to find each other again. But Safi wastes no time being attracted to other men. Of course I know this happens, particularly with a teenager like Safi, but I felt disappointed in her nonetheless.

The middle part of the book is a bit of a drag all-round, with quick POV changes but very little happening to push the plot forward in each of the story lines. I felt like Iseult and Aeduan walked around for ages without getting any further, I felt Merik hid in the shadows without any plan of what to do, just sulking around, and Safi and Vaness stumbled from one kind of capture into the next – all without moving anything truly forward. But the last third of the book made up for the middle slog.

What really, really bothered me, especially toward the end, was the extremely quick jumps between characters. As soon as I got into a scene, felt comfortable with one character’s story line again, something shocking happens and it’s over – we jump to the next character. And then the same thing happens over again. And again. And again. It’s thrilling, no doubt, reading nothing but cliffhangers for about a hundred pages, but it never allowed me to fully engage with any one character or their story because I was constantly being ripped out of it again. I think putting the individual character sequences together differently would have greatly improved the book. But hey, that’s just me.

Despite the annoying POV jumps, the ending was quite epic. There were several revelations that open the world up even more and give plenty of room for the sequels. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the parts of the world that have already been established, as well as about the magic, but if the author decided to keep that for the upcoming books, I’m okay with that. This may have been a very flawed book that would have benefited off some better editing, but I’m still invested in the Witchlands and its characters. I can’t wait to finish the prequel Sightwitch and then dive straight into the newly-released Bloodwitch. Because, come on, it has to be focused on Aeduan and Aeduan is the best!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

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

What I’ve read

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

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

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

My retellings reading plan

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

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

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

General Thoughts on the Challenge

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

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

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

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

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

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

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

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

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent