N.K. Jemisin – The Kingdom of Gods

It is now official. I am a fan of N.K. Jemisin’s.  Her Inheritance Trilogy is a wonderfully fresh take on fantasy with gods roaming the mortal realms doing harm and doing good, with a world that’s radiant and original, peopled by some of the most wonderful characters I have met in literature. Thank you, Miss Jemisin.

THE KINGDOM OF GODS
by N.K. Jemisin

published: Orbit, 2011
ISBN:0316043931
pages: 642
copy: ebook
series: The Inheritance Trilogy 3

my rating: 7,5/10

first sentence: She looks so much like Enefa, I think, the first time I see her.

For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameri’s ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war. Shahar, last scion of the family, must choose her loyalties. She yearns to trust Sieh, the godling she loves. Yet her duty as Arameri heir is to uphold the family’s interests, even if that means using and destroying everyone she cares for. As long-suppressed rage and terrible new magics consume the world, the Maelstrom – which even gods fear – is summoned forth. Shahar and Sieh: mortal and god, lovers and enemies. Can they stand together against the chaos that threatens?

Let us ignore this slightly misleading blurb, okay? This third instalment in the trilogy is told out of Sieh’s perspective, a godling who we got to know a little in book one and saw only peripherally in book two. I was immediately struck by his fickle character and just how different he seemed to the Sieh I thought I knew from when Yeine told her story. Sieh is a trickster god, the god of childhood and freedom and carelessness. What we see of him at first is cruelty, though, and a blatant disregard for mortal life. Until he meets the Arameri twins Shahar and Dekarta and the three swear an oath of friendship. And Sieh turns mortal…

This happens fairly early in the book and had me thinking: Oh no, not again! With a similar premise in book two (still my favourite), I didn’t much feel like rehashing the same themes again. But the author doesn’t disappoint and the story, while meandering like crazy at certain points, takes us to new and unexplored depths of what it’s like to be a godling. Sieh’s character is so full of facets and change that I didn’t really much care about the plot. Following him through this insane story was a pleasure in and of itself.

Like I said, the plot is all over the place. Many plot strings are introduced but we’re left in the dark as to whether they’re important at all or not. Strange masks turn their wearers into killing machines, only to kill them in the end, which poses a new threat on the Arameri rule. Sieh’s love for both of his befriended twins creates new drama and conflict. And there is still Itempas, 100 years after the events of The Broken Kingdoms, trying to atone. What kept me reading was the big secret that looms over all of this, something Sieh has forgotten, something that changes everything.

But even after this big secret is revealed (and it is a bummer!), new threats and the intricacies of the story kept me interested. This wasn’t a tale as beautifully crafted as book two but I still enjoyed every page. Mostly because N.K. Jemisin is just a brilliant storyteller. She explores themes of love, death, and fate. Of relationships between fathers and sons, silblings, lovers, and families with too much power for their own good.

“Well, isn’t that what fathers do?” He had no idea what fathers did. “Love you, even if you don’t love them? Miss you when you go away?”

The ending was not just a climax to this book but to the entire trilogy. As devastating as it was, at the same time, it gave me hope. Hope for this world – and yes, I realise it’s fictional – and for the gods and mortals alike. Different from its predecessors as it may be, this book left me utterly satisfied and wanting a lot more of Jemisin’s stories. A very nice extra was the glossary, fully equipped with doodles by Sieh himself.

THE GOOD: Beautifully written, characters with so much depth you can never be sure of who they really are. Set in an original and fresh fantasy world.
THE BAD: The plot meanders a bit and feels slightly chaotic at times.
THE VERDICT: Utterly recommendable to fans of the previous books. It is a worthy end to a trilogy that takes a new spin on fantasy worlds. N.K. Jemisin is an author well worth watching! I’m going to buy paper copies of the entire trilogy, it was that good.

RATING: 7,5/10 A very, very good book.

The Inheritance Trilogy:

  1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
  2. The Broken Kingdoms
  3. The Kingdom of Gods

Other reviews:

George R.R. Martin – The Hedge Knight

Normally, I wouldn’t review a short story all by itself but as I’ve read this in the Legends anthology and bought the graphic novel (loved the Dabel Brothers), I thought this deserves an entire post devoted to it. It also happens to be awesome!

THE HEDGE KNIGHT
by George R.R. Martin

art by: Mike S. Miller
published:
Dabel Brothers, 2005 (1998)
ISBN:0785125787
pages: 164
copy: paperback, hardcover
series: Dunk & Egg #1

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: The spring rains had softened the ground, so Dunk had no trouble digging the grave.

A century before the events of George R. R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, a squire named Dunk picks up the sword and shield of his dead master and enters a tournament to begin his career as a knight. But “Ser Duncan” has much to learn about this world of knights and nobles, and as he attempts to find a sponsor who will allow him to enter the tournament, he makes friends and enemies readily. Dunk is a capable fighter and has a strong sense of honor, but is that enough for him to become a true knight in the eyes of the others, or is he just a young man living a delusion and putting those he knows in grave danger?

I would say it takes about two pages, in the novella and the comic book alike, to fall in love with this story. It starts with Dunk burying his old master, a knight, and remembering how he became his squire. Taking up shield and sword and pretending to be a knight, calling himself Ser Duncan, no less, may be dangerous. But Dunk feels it’s the right thing to do and desperately hopes to prove himself in the upcoming tournament. Good thing he picks up young Egg on the way, who is not only adorable and slightly mysterious, but also helps Dunk find his way in the world of sers and ladies.

By far my favorite picture from the graphic novel.

The story is pretty straight forward and shouldn’t be as gripping as it was. But George R.R. Martin just blew me away with his writing. While set in Westeros (200 years before the events in A Game of Thrones) and very true to his style, the writing here is more poetic and, in some scenes, so beautiful it made me want to be a writer. Now that’s a sure clue for good writing. I still remember that one scene where Dunk slept outside, not having a tent like all the other lords and knights, and seeing a shooting star. That scene is as vivid in my memory as it was touching when I first read it.

Plus, we get to meet a former generation of Targaryens and it’s a lot of fun making connections about the history of Westeros. You don’t have to read these to enjoy the main series or vice versa but, let’s be honest, who can really resist more Westeros when there is more Westeros?

I love how George R.R. Martin mixes an element of mystery into his knight’s tale and just the teeniest hint of romance. The climax was fantastically done and while the story definitely leaves certain things open to explore later on, it is a well rounded tale that can be read as a standalone.

The graphic novel:

Add to all of the above the most beautiful artwork I’ve seen in a long time. It’s hard to review comic books because the drawing style and coloring are a huge matter of taste and everybody likes different things. This, however, is my thing. I like that the characters’ faces are clearly defined and don’t all look alike. Sure, most everyone is surprisingly beautiful and well-built, but I’ll forgive that.

This comic book does what the medium is supposed to. It adds a layer to an already great story, giving it texture and emotion by using colors and drawings. I actually prefer this adaptation to the original, simply because it captured all the spirit of the novella but it gave me so much more. Dunk has a face, Egg is just perfect and the scenery is amazing.

Overall, I would recommend this most warmly to any Song of Ice and Fire fan who hasn’t read it yet and especially to those who find the size of the series daunting and aren’t sure if they’ll like it. Try this story here – novella or graphic novel, whatever suits you better – and you’ll get a good taste of what George R.R. Martin can do (and you will probably need Neil Gaiman to remind you every once in a while that GRRM is not our bitch). If you don’t like this alternate universe, the history and culture and religion in the story, you probably won’t enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire either. But if you do like this, then you’ve got about 5000 pages of pure pleasure ahead of you. And I envy you.

THE GOOD: Wonderful characters, beautiful language and some of the most emotional scenes ever. The artwork is award-worthy and both novella and comic book are very much re-readable.
THE BAD: Nothing bad in the comic book. Some slowish passages in the novella, but really, I’m just looking for stuff to say here…
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to fans and not-yet-fans of George R.R. Martin’s. A short, poignant and poetically told tale of a knight and his squire just trying to be good guys.

RATING (novella): 9/10  Nine almost impeccable knights.
RATING (graphic novel): 10/10 Perfection!

The Tales of Dunk & Egg:

  1. The Hedge Knight
  2. The Sworn Sword
  3. The Mystery Knight

Robin Hobb – Royal Assassin

This is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series but unlike with most trilogies, it was the middle book that I liked best. I figure this must be a Robin Hobb thing because it also happened with the second trilogy, The Liveship Traders. Or maybe I’m just weird and have a thing for volume two.

ROYAL ASSASSIN
by Robin Hobb

published: Voyager 1997 (1996)
ISBN:0006480101
pages: 752
copy: paperback
series: The Farseer Trilogy #2

my rating: 10/10

first sentence: Why is it forbidden to write down specific knowledge of the magics?

Young Fitz, the illegitimate son of the noble Prince Chivalry, is ignored by all royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has had him tutored in the dark arts of the assassin. He has barely survived his first, soul-shattering mission, and returns to the court where he is thrown headfirst into the tumult of royal life. With the King near death, and Fitz’s only ally off on a seemingly hopeless quest, the throne itself is threatened. Meanwhile, the treacherous Red Ship Raiders have renewed their attacks on the Six Duchies, slaughtering the inhabitants of entire seaside towns. In this time of great peril, it soon becomes clear that the fate of the kingdom may rest in Fitz’s hands – and his role in its salvation may require the ultimate sacrifice.

The ending of Assassin’s Apprentice left me surprised, shocked, shaken, and wanting more. Robin Hobb did not spend all those pages in book one setting up characters for nothing. In this volume, we dive straight into action, not needing to find out who is who anymore. We know everybody and have formed some sort of opinion on their character. The author can thusly use every single one of these 752 pages to drive the plot forward, to have these characters develop and grow and to offer us, her readers, moments of heart-wrenching agony, of suspense and pleasure, of fear and horror.

You can say what you want about Hobb’s slow beginnings, she is a superb writer. What she does with language is outstanding and has never failed to draw me in – even in the really boring books. Fitz grows up a lot in this novel, not only because he hits a certain age but also because his duties – suddenly multiplied – demand it of him. There is a war going on and nobody in the entire kingdom is sure why. The Red Ship Raiders continue to “forge” people, kidnapping them, taking away their souls, and sending them back as lifeless husks who behave like zombies. Even without this threat from the outside, prince Regal and his ambition for the crown offer enough intrigue to fill an entire book. Fitz stays loyal to Verity and does what he can to help him stay alive so he can follow King Shrewd to the throne.
But Fitz is also a little preoccupied. A romance of his own has just started to bud and there is another creature in his life that demands attention and love. The cover of the new paperback edition may tip you off about the identity of said creature.

It is hard to put into words what I felt while reading this book. I had grown to love the characters (and hate some of them, too) in the first novel, so emotionally I wasn’t prepared to see them go through hell again. Fitz does get some precious moments of happiness but Robin Hobb wouldn’t be Robin Hobb if she didn’t end up putting her protagonist thorugh the worst kind of torture she could think of. And, masochist as that must sound, I really enjoy reading this. As Fitz is a first person narrator, I was never truly worried for his life but, trust me, there are enough other things you can worry about. And I got incredibly invested in the fae of this fictional cast of characters.

The Fool, Kettricken, Verity, Burrich, and even King Shrewd revealed new facets of their personalities and made the story just that much more interesting. It was like I grew with Fitz, learning to see the bigger picture and getting hints and ideas about what is really going on. This being the middle novel of a trilogy, hints is all we get and the book ends in quite a cliffhanger.

A ten out of ten rating is rare and this is the first book I am reviewing on this blog to deserve it. If you can write 752 pages of pure enjoyment and make me dream about the characters and hope that they’ll end up safe and sound, all while making me rave about how beautiful the language and writing style is, then you’ve truly deserved your ten points. Re-reads have not diminished my opinion of this book, merely strenghtened it. Even if you didn’t love Assassin’s Apprentice, give this one a try. If it doesn’t pull you into the Six Duchies, then Robin Hobb may just not be for you.

THE GOOD: Incredible characters, beautiful language, a kick-ass suspenseful plot and way more action than book one. Also, bonding with animals.
THE BAD: Uhm… you have to make it through book one first?
THE VERDICT: One of my favorite books of all genres with a great protagonist and an even more memorable and mysterious side character, the Fool.

RATING: 10/10 Perfection!

The Farseer Trilogy:

  1. Assassin’s Apprentice
  2. Royal Assassin
  3. Assassin’s Quest

Guy Gavriel Kay – Tigana

I am huge fan of book-related podcasts and without the Sword & Laser show I probably would have let this book rot on the TBR pile for even longer. Thankfully, it was this month’s pick for their book club and I enjoyed myself immensely. Be sure to check out the discussions on Goodreads as well. For the paranoid ones among you: I shortened the synopsis (as the original one contains some massive spoilers) to a minimum. So this review is absolutely spoiler-free.

TIGANA
by Guy Gavriel Kay

published: Penguin Canada, 1990
ISBN: 0451457765
pages: 673
copy: paperback

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: Both moons were high, dimming the light of all but the brightest stars.

Eight of the nine provinces of the Peninsula of the Palm, on a world with two moons, have fallen to the warrior sorcerers Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior. Brandin’s younger son is slain in a battle with the principality of Tigana, which the grief-stricken sorcerer then destroys. Years later, a small band of survivors, led by Alessan, last prince of Tigana’s royal house, wages psychological warfare, planting seeds for the overthrow of the two tyrants. At the center of these activities are Devin, a gifted young singer, and Catriana, a young woman pursued by suspicions of her family’s guilt.

A book of this size can be daunting, even for the experienced fantasy reader. The prologue started out promising enough, but in chapter 1 I was completely lost. Names are thrown around, political situations gossiped about and me, poor reader, in the middle of it all, not understanding any of it. Then I got some advice from the reading group which I will now pass on to you, dear readers. Just make it to chapter 3 or 4 and the initial confusion will be gone. At that point, this book had its hooks firmly set into me and wouldn’t let them go until the very end.

For me, the perfect novel needs to excel on all levels. Characters and their development, plot, themes, world-building and writing style. Tigana is nearly perfect in all of those. The characters got to me in a way that I haven’t experienced since Robin Hobb’s books. Incidentally, Kay’s style is also somewhat similar to Hobb’s. Attentive Devin, Alessan with his dream, seemingly cold Catriana, and mysterious Baerd each took their own time to become truly interesting but in the end, I cared for every one of them. My favorite character by far was Dianora – I could have read a whole book just about her internal conflict. That said, Erlein also grew to be a favorite – I do have a thing for characters who have to fight conflicts within themselves.

Speaking of conflict: Until the very end, I had no idea what conclusion the story would reach. It could have gone either way and honestly, Kay probably would have pulled either of them off. I am very pleased with the way it did end, even though it was bittersweet and broke my heart a little. Because of all the incredible plot  twists along the way, my hopes for the characters actually changed quite a bit. Kay’s slow revelation of certain truths and other twists that come with a bang managed to create a huge novel without a boring moment in it.

The more I advanced in the story line, the more moments of WTF I can’t believe this just happened came up. And Guy Gavriel Kay drew me into this tale of patriotism and memory and made me fall in love. With the incredible things I had heard about Kay’s writing,  I should have been disappointed. But my high expectations were surpassed, and by far. I came to care about Tigana as if it were my home too.

It’s not a book I’d recommend to everyone. If you don’t like Guy Gavriel Kay’s winded language, long descriptions, or if you hate waiting for a particular plotline to pick up again, this is not for you. If you do like these things – or at least don’t mind them – then let me push Tigana your way. It is definitely worth the read and personally, I enjoyed every page of description, of inner conflict and of characters reminiscing and dreaming about a home that has been taken from them and for the moment only lives on in their memories.

However different opinions may be, for me this was an absolute standout. A book that accompanied me for more than a month and that, when I wasn’t reading it, kept me thinking and worried about the characters. Most of all, it constantly kept me guessing. The ending is a highlight that I can’t begin to describe. But I loved that while the reader finds out the truth about certain things, not all of the characters do. And I’m not even going to start about that last sentence. My mouth was agape for about a minute. Guy Gavriel Kay just got catapulted to my top authors (and people say Tigana is one of his not-so-great novels).

THE GOOD: Amazing, vivid characters. Gorgeous language, plot-twists, surprises and action mixed with calmer moments that make you think long and hard about what’s important.
THE BAD: The language is sure to put some people off. It takes a while for the story to pick up and the style is sweeping and flowers. Not for everybody.
THE VERDICT:  Fans of Robin Hobb’s writing will find a new favorite in this story. Similarly epic in scope and style, this story deals with big themes and all-too-human characters that break your heart on every page.

RATING: 9,5/10  Damn close to perfection!

Other reviews:

Jacqueline Carey – Kushiel’s Dart

Patience, young Padawan. Some books take longer to grip you, some even bore and confuse you for 200 pages only to finally tear out your heart and make you feel all the things. Carey’s books don’t start with lots of action, but it pays off to pull through the first few chapters to get to the amazing bits. Personally, I discovered a writer in Carey who may actually rival Robin Hobb.

KUSHIEL’S DART
by Jacqueline Carey

published: Tor Books, 2001
ISBN:0765342987
pages: 912
copy: paperback
series:  Kushiel’s Legacy #1
Terre d’Ange #1

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and solt into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good…and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel’s Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear. Set in a world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess, this is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Not since Dune has there been an epic on the scale of Kushiel’s Dart-a massive tale about the violent death of an old age, and the birth of a new.

Do not be put off by the slow beginning of this story. It really pays to push through the first few hundred pages (yes, I know that sounds like a lot) which are filled mostly with the setting up of court intrigues, introducing the world and characters and, most of all, making the readers acquainted with Phèdre, one of the most intriguing heroines I’ve ever read about. I’m not saying the beginning is boring, I just have trouble getting emotionally invested when I don’t fully understand the politics and religion of the setting yet. But, eager learner as I am, once I had a rough idea of how this society and the circles in which Phèdre moves, functions, I was all in. There is one specific event that happens in the book and was a turning point for me (and Phèdre, for that matter). Because starting from that point, there is action almost non-stop, some intrigues become clearer, new ones appear and remain as obscure as they can be.

Guessing what is going on is only half the fun of this novel. The plot, thrilling as it is, pales next to Jacqueline Carey’s writing. Her style is flowery and feminine, and utterly beautiful. She paints pictures with her prose, brings her amazing characters to life – among them a highly interersting villain and Phèdre herself, whose pleasure is derived from pain. That said, there are several scenes in this book that describe sexual encounters. I loved the writing in those scenes as much as the variety of “love-making” that Carey shows. Whether it is Phèdre doing her job as a courtesan, her sleeping with somebody to get to information, or having sex with somebody she truly cares for – we get to see how varied the act itself can be. And how beautifully this land of Terre d’Ange deals with it. Reading this made me wish we could be a little less stuck up and handle sex with similar grace.

I gave away very little of the plot because anything more I could say would spoil your reading pleasure. Be assured, though, that there is much more going on than courtiers talking and Phèdre sleeping with people. There is a very real threat to the kingdom and our heroine is in the thick of it. The map at the beginning of the book will tip you off that not all the story takes place in this make-believe France. There is love, hate, war and torture, deceit and loyalty, sex and adventure. That is all I’m going to say.

THE GOOD: Amazing prose, not your every-day characters, a plot that’s got everything you can think of.
THE BAD: Very slow beginning, I’m sure less patient readers will be put off.
THE VERDICT: A wonderful book that should be read by all those who consider themselves fans of the genre and want a different kind of fantasy.

RATING: 9/10  Truly excellent

Kushiel’s Legacy:

  1. Kushiel’s Dart
  2. Kushiel’s Chosen
  3. Kushiel’s Avatar

Genevieve Valentine – Mechanique

Expectations can go either way. Sometimes a book cover or a blurb influences you so much that you believe you know exactly what to expect from a story. With this novel, it was mostly the current steampunk and dystopia hype that led me to expect a Hunger Games/Parasol Protectorate knock-off. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m glad my prejudices didn’t keep me from discovering one of the best books I have ever read.

MECHANIQUE

by Genevieve Valentine

published: 2011
ISBN: 1607012537
pages: 284
copy: ebook and paperback

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti’s performers are trapped in a secret stand-off that threatens to tear the Circus apart, just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now they must fight a war on two fronts: on from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within…

There are books that only take a page to make you envious of the author’s talent. Genevieve Valentine has all my envy and jealousy and respect for doing with words what she did in this debut novel. Every word is perfect, every sentence full of meaning and every chapter like a story of its own. Books like this remind me again why I read genre fiction. Because Valentine could be named among any of the contemorary greats of literature – if I had any say in it, I’d throw pretty much every literary award her way I can think of.

This is the story of a circus, told for the most part out of Little George’s point of view. He is a little boy who doesn’t miss much, and narrates the story superbly. His sparse, but poignant words put life into the characters and their sometimes unfathomable relationships to each other. We are told slowly, and chapter by chapter, who came to the circus, why they joined and – perhaps most interestingly at first – what really happened to Alec. The Winged Man has been dead since before the story starts but his death (and life, for that matter) remains a mystery.

It takes Genevieve Valentine maybe two sentences to create a character that feels like a living, breathing creature. After soaking up every word of this story, I don’t feel I truly know any of them, not at their core. I love how we don’t get smacked over the head with information, with character traits or what drives them. Valentine shows, she doesn’t tell. And sometimes she doesn’t show very much either. I love an author who trusts their readers to use their own heads to figure out what’s really going on. Having an unreliable narrator makes it even more interesting to define just what shade of grey each of the characters are.

There is a heavy steampunk element to this story, though not at all like I expected. It is not about zeppelins and goggles, the brass and copper used in this tale is well incorporated into the world and the subtle magic system. For the most part, it is a novel about people, though. About their dreams and what they’re willing to do to get to them, about their fears and about love, and how far it can push them. As emotionally layered as the circus troupe is, I wouldn’t even have needed a plot. Just discovering these brilliant people would have been enough.

But the author, mostly known for short fiction before this novel, has a plot in store for us. It may be slow to begin but turns into a suspenseful adventure with the most perfect ending I could have imagined. Except of course for the one flaw: the fact that it does end.

Stylistically, this may be a difficult read for some. Valentine jumps randomly between a third-person narrative and first-person narrative (from different characters’ points of view) to an occasional second-person narrative. As if that weren’t confusing enough at times, we switch tenses from past to present. It is further proof of her writing skill that I always knew in whose head I was and when – chronologically speaking – this particular chapter was taking place. Because being told in present tense does not automatically mean that the chapter isn’t a flashback to a few years prior to the main plot. If that makes sense to you. It is a challenge but one I was happy to take and that turned out to make a delightful change from your boring old straightly told story.

There were so many parts of this book that I found so quotable, I’d love to fill a whole notebook with it. Here’s an example of Valentine’s voice. Jonah has accidentally adopted a wolf. It’s been running around the circus but slowly turns wilder and wilder. And it’s time to take down the tents and move on.

One day the wolf was wild enough to run into the forest near their camp, hunting something only it could sense. A week later when they pulled down the tent, the wolf had not come back. “Call it, if you want,” Boss told Jonah. “We’ll wait.”
That night Jonah stood for an hour at the edge of the camp, looking into the darkness of the woods. He came back empty-handed.
Ayar frowned. “It didn’t come?”
Jonah said, “I didn’t call.”

I have no words to describe what an experience this book was. After I finished, a sadness swept over me and made me want to return (immediately) to that strange, sinister world of the Circus Tresaulti. I caught myself re-reading my favourite passages, soaking up the words. I sincerely hope Valentine will win the Nebula Award for this novel. It’s definitely one of my highlights this year, if not ever.

THE GOOD: Poetic language, playing with styles, deeply touching characters, suspenseful plot, original use of steampunk.
THE BAD: If anything, it was too short.
THE VERDICT: A challenging, unique read that has haunted me all year and is recommended to anyone who reads speculative fiction.

RATING:  9,5/10  –  Damn near perfection!

Read the first five chapters for free as well as three short stories in the world of Circus Tresaulti (also highly recommended, especially the one about Panadrome, “Study, for Solo Piano“).

Other reviews:

Robin Hobb – Assassin’s Apprentice

It took me two tries to even finish the book – how could I know it would turn out to be one of my favourite fantasy novels ever? By now, I have re-read these books many times and am probably quite biased (if you know what’s coming, you’re more willing to put up with a slow beginning). I’m just saying…

ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE
by Robin Hobb

published: Voyager/Spectra 1995
ISBN:0006480098
pages: 480
copy: paperback
series: The Farseer Trilogy #1

my rating: 7,5/10 (on first reading)
9/10 (after several re-reads)

first sentence: A history of the six Duchies is of necessity a history of its ruling family, the Farseers.

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill–and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

He may not captivate you on the first page, but Fitz is one of the most memorable and beloved characters I have ever read about. He tells his story as a grown man, starting from his childhood and how he first came to Buckkeep castle. While stablemaster Burrich raises him, he receives, in secret, training from the dark and mysterious Chade, on how to be an assassin. For a very long time, this is not a swash-buckeling adventure story, it is the story of a little boy, trying to find his place in a court whose rules he doesn’t understand. Yet. As Fitz grows and learns, he evolves and shows the readers a bigger picture of the world surrounding him. His world may start out mainly as the stables and the castle but soon political events and the threat of war draw him into the Six Duchies’ history.

This is a slow book. Do not expect action around every corner or sword fights in every chapter. Fitz’ first person narrative is extremely character-driven and for those who enjoy layered, three-dimensional cast, this will be a pleasure. That said, the last 100 pages or so are so full of action, you won’t want to stop after book 1. The first time reading this, I had some trouble getting into the story, mainly because it felt like nothing was happening. After a few reads, I must say that this is simply not true. Things do happen, they’re just not obvious if you don’t know the players in the game, the political situation and the characters yet. Do not despair! Read on and you will be rewarded.

Robin Hobb does not only have a huge vocabulary, she also has a knack of finding just the right words for what she wants to say. Stylistically, this is a masterpiece (as are any of Hobb’s books that I’ve read so far). She also seems to enjoy putting her protagonists through agony in every single novel she writes. Without conflict, there can be no growth. So Fitz, shunned and misunderstood, has no choice but to get up every time he gets knocked down and make the best of it. There are quite a few scenes in this book that make me cry every single time I read them. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t help – which is all the more proof of Hobb’s writing skill.

Apart from Fitz, there is a hugely interesting cast of side characters, most prominently so probably the Fool. He (or she) is never quite tangible and you can’t be sure if he’s on your side or not. That’s only part of what makes him so intriguing. The other part is his role in the bigger game – and that’s where I stop talking about it. Just find out for yourselves.

This book – and the whole series – counts among my long-term favourites. I still wish I could wipe my memory of Fitz’ story and start all over again. It’s that good.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, characters that feel real, interesting idea of magic and very good court intrigue.
THE BAD: Very slow start, may appeal more to women (despite an almost all-male cast).
THE VERDICT: A must read for anyone who calls themselves a fan of the fantasy genre.

RATING: 9/10  Almost perfect

The Farseer Trilogy:

  1. Assassin’s Apprentice
  2. Royal Assassin
  3. Assassin’s Quest

John Green – The Fault In Our Stars

On YouTube, everybody is talking about John Green. I’ve never heard about this author or any of his books. Then again, I do live in Vienna and it usually takes a while until the translation hits the shelves here and only then do the big hits really take off.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
by John Green

published by: Dutton Books, 2012
pages: 318
copy: hardcover

my rating: 8/10

first sentence: Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

When 16-year-old Hazel meets Augustus in one of her Cancer Support Group meetings, he seems immediately smitten and not the least put off by the oxigen tank trailing behind her. While Hazel is much more careful around other people, the fact that Agustus likes her favorite book helps build a friendship. Together, they set out on a quest to find out what happened after the novel ends abrubptly and mid-sentence, and end up falling in love…

I was determined to not be biased by all the raving reviews I had read of John Green’s books. In fact, they may have made it harder for Mr. Green to capture my reader’s heart. Which didn’t detain him at all. While the fun and quirky writing style sucked me in immediately, I only fell in love with the novel about a third of the way in. John Green seems to have timed this perfectly – stealing your heart, only to break it. And making you laugh while he does so.

Hazel’s grounded, funny and at times sarcastic voice makes this an enthralling and way-too-quick read. With such a stron protagonist, the added bonus of Agustus turned me into a fangirl that would put Twilight fans to shame. I honestly didn’t expect the dialogue to be that good, especially when it was Hazel and Augustus against the world – they have a sense of gallow’s humor only the terminally ill will probably truly understand. At times, I didn’t know whether I should cry of laugh – I ended up doing both.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.

This bittersweet, heartbreaking tale is a love story, yes. And it is a cancer story. But don’t be put off. The novel’s strongest suit is its humor and dialogue and characters you wish you knew in real life. But it also provides some little plot twists that took me by surprise. In fact, I thought I had figured out how it would end by chapter 4, only to find out I was way off.

While I was reading (in one go, by the way, only taking a couple of toilet breaks… and yes, I admit I took the book with me even then *ahem*) this silly grin seemed pasted onto my face. John Green knows what it’s like to fall in love and he made me remember my teenage days, though not cancer-ridden, as full of feelings as this story.

It is with one laughing and one crying eye that I close this book (which unfortunately is not signed by the author, no matter what color sharpee) and go looking for the next John Green to read.

THE GOOD: Quirky, fast-paced read, lovable characters, funny dialogue, adorable story.
THE BAD: Tear-jerker, should not be read in public by people who cry easily.
THE VERDICT: Hand me more John Green!

RATING: 8/10  Awesomesauce

Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

I am ashamed to admit that I mostly read fantasy with white protagonists, mostly written by white authors – with the occasional exception. So I thought it was time to delve into literature taking place in the rest of the world, written by non-western writers. And as it turns out, this was absolutely worth it.

WHO FEARS DEATH
by Nnedi Okorafor

publisher: DAW, 2010
ISBN: 0756406692
pages
: 387
copy: paperback

my rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: My life fell apart when I was sixteen.

Onyesonwu is born Ewu, the child of rape between a Nuru man and an Okeke woman. Born out of violence, these cursed people are said to only produce violence themselves. Onyesonwu’s life as an outcast is difficult enough. But at the age of 11, she discovers that she has certain abilities and her greatest wish is to be apprenticed by the town sorcerer. To make the constantly feuding Nurus and Okekes make peace… and take revenge on her biological father.

Ignorant as I was, I expected this book to be hard to get into. That was not the case. Onyesonwu, our first-person narrator, tells her tale an immediately grabbed my attention. The story picks up right away and is nicely paced. There are some flashbacks, action scenes, nicely alternated by calmer chapters that further the characters and their relationships.

As characters go, the whole set in this book is convicingly real. None of them are flawless, especially Onyesonwu. I enjoyed how very human they felt. Onye’s handful of friends all have their own heads – some seem to want only the attention of men, others plot their own revenge, and others may just be confused about pretty much everything. But they are each vibrant and lovable in their way. My weakness for Mwita started soon and stayed strong until the very end. Onye is a heroine whose strenght and relentlessness should be model to other modern protagonists (don’t know why I’m thinking of annoying Kvothe here…).

This story features an interesting magic system that leans more towards the spiritual, mystical than speaking incantations or waving ones hands. It was well executed and had a nice continuity to it. Technology, the second kind of magic in this book, if you want,  is employed quite strangely. If I hadn’t read reviews on this book that mentioned “post-apocalyptic Africa” and used the term science fiction, I would have simply understood it as a fantasy, a parallel Africa, if you want. But there are cell phones mentioned, with GPS, and mp3-players and computers, though they seem to be so rare that Onye has only touched a couple of them. The existence of technology in this universe didn’t bother me per se, but it did feel slightly out of place with the otherwise mystical tone. Setting this story in the far future, when our modern technology is dated and has mostly died out, was not necessary to the story or the plot. It would have worked just as well without any mention of cell phones or video recorders.

What the author probably does best is build athmosphere. The quieter passages don’t get boring because even though there isn’t much action, they are still full of life. Okorafor makes  the colours of the desert seem vibrant, the simple life in Jwahir important in its own way and the spiritual-like magic understandable. The town of Jwahir, the desert and its inhabitants, seemed utterly alive and like a quite inviting place.

The language is at times stunning and at others reads like a debut novel. The author has written YA novels so far, this being her first story aimed at an adult audience. It was not perfect throughout, but pretty damn close. A novel of such strength can be forgiven the occasional slip-up. I got this feeling during scenes that felt like they were supposed to be stronger but didn’t quite succeed. This happens about twice, maybe three times, during the story, so it’s negligible. The vast majority of Okorafor’s writing is powerful, on point and deeply moving.

I enjoyed this book as much for the characters and plot as I did for the themes explored in it. Onyesonwu, being a mixed race child, faces racism and hate very soon. Because her skin is the color of sand and not – like the Okeke, a rich darker brown or, like the Nuru, white – but she’s also a girl, which denies her many privileges granted to a male. Even an Ewu male. Already doubly cursed, Onyesonwu’s home town Jwahir, holds what is called the Eleventh rite, female circumcision. Since this ritual is supposed to take any pleasure a woman might feel during sex away, Onye has her own thoughts on the subject.

Sex is talked about very openly and naturally in this story. Chidlren as young as 11 have already had first sexual experiences and maybe even intercourse. There is no shame in admitting that you enjoy sex or want a certain man’s attention. As strange and foreign the Okeke’s culture seemed to me, as refreshing was the way this subject was treated. Especially since I get the feeling that nowadays, in literature and TV, sex is either ignored or used for shock value in its extremer forms. I thought it wonderful the way it is employed here – natural, a part of human life and while it’s still a private act between two (or more) people, nobody has to be ashamed for it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is also themes of war, child soldiers, fate and accepting one’s own mortality – the book and Onyesonwu are aptly named. I would recommend this book to everyone but I feel I should caution you. There are some grittier scenes of rape, female circumcision and violence that may rub more sensitive readers the wrong way. None of it is too graphic or dwelled on too long.

This unique and magical story has definitely conquered my heart, despite or maybe because of its melancholy tone, wonderful characters and vibrant setting.

THE GOOD: Outstanding characters and story-telling, exotic setting, a quite unique book.
THE BAD: Unecessary use of technology/post-apocalyptic setting, sometimes writing not perfectly on point.
THE VERDICT: A wonderful book and quite a page-turner that gave me rich and enjoyable hours spent with amazing characters.

RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent

Stephen King – It

Whew! This has been quite a journey. It took me the better part of a year to read this book. I devoured 500 pages in two days, then set it aside for months at a time. Which does not mean it was a bad read or got boring, but it’s a lot to take in at once. And Stephen King’s masterful story-telling made it very easy to remember even the smallest details of something read half a year ago. It creeped me out, it made me laugh, it made me cry – the Master did it again!

 IT
by Stephen King

published in: 1986
by: Viking
pages: 1376
copy: paperback (huge!)

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter shell swollen with rain.

Anyone who has seen the movie – and who hasn’t? – will be familiar with the basic plot of this chunky King story. It, a strange force usually appearing as Pennywise the clown (though It has a range of other creepy shapes) is wreaking havoc on the little town of Derry, Maine. Children disappear, are killed brutally, and nobody seems to know what’s behind the killings. Except for a group of child misfits who know that Derry is being haunted by a monster. Apart from running from bullies, trying to stay alive and simply being children, they decide to destroy It, no matter what.

Stephen King’s ability to make characters, especially children, come to life, is uncanny. I’ve said many times that my favorite aspect of his books is the way he talks about childhood friends. But it’s not just that romantic 50ies playing-out-in-the-sun, riding a bike, and secretly smoking kind of thing that I enjoy reading. Every single person in this story seems to leap off the page with a life of their own. Stuttering Bill, fat Ben Hanscom, Eddie with his aspirator, and beautiful Beverly Marsh, along with the rest of the Losers’ Club and the bullies and side-characters, seemed so utterly real that it made the events of the story all the more scary.

Which leads me to the horror bit. I’m not one to be scared by monsters but I do admit a dancing demon clown is not my favorite subject to dream about. What scared the living daylights out of me, though, was the very human horror. Patrick Hockstetter’s story managed to make me cry in desperation, shake my head in disbelief and run to get a hug from my significant other because I felt so scared. So yes, It may be ablet to look like a werewolf or a leper or a clown with razor teeth, but It acted through humans and it was those actions that made this a true horror novel for me.

I feel silly trying to judge Stephen King’s writing. It’s impeccable, it grabs you and keeps you hooked. The ending held a few surprises for me so if you’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off – the book is bigger, not only in pages, but in scope and backstory. And it’s well worth the read.

THE GOOD: Well written, fantastic characters and great creepy moments.
THE BAD: It’s a big commitment. If you don’t want to read 1500 pages in one go, do it like me and put it aside for a while.
THE VERDICT: Essential Stephen King, I also suspect a lot of connections to the Dark Tower series.

MY RATING: 8/10